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´╗┐Title: Cost of Living
Author: Sheckley, Robert, 1928-2005
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Cost of Living" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.

[Illustration: Illustrated by EMSH]


 _If easy payment plans were
     to be really efficient, patrons'
         lifetimes had to be extended!_


Carrin decided that he could trace his present mood to Miller's suicide
last week. But the knowledge didn't help him get rid of the vague,
formless fear in the back of his mind. It was foolish. Miller's suicide
didn't concern him.

But why had that fat, jovial man killed himself? Miller had had
everything to live for--wife, kids, good job, and all the marvelous
luxuries of the age. Why had he done it?

"Good morning, dear," Carrin's wife said as he sat down at the breakfast

"Morning, honey. Morning, Billy."

His son grunted something.

You just couldn't tell about people, Carrin decided, and dialed his
breakfast. The meal was gracefully prepared and served by the new
Avignon Electric Auto-cook.

His mood persisted, annoyingly enough since Carrin wanted to be in top
form this morning. It was his day off, and the Avignon Electric finance
man was coming. This was an important day.

He walked to the door with his son.

"Have a good day, Billy."

His son nodded, shifted his books and started to school without
answering. Carrin wondered if something was bothering him, too. He hoped
not. One worrier in the family was plenty.

"See you later, honey." He kissed his wife as she left to go shopping.

At any rate, he thought, watching her go down the walk, at least she's
happy. He wondered how much she'd spend at the A. E. store.

Checking his watch, he found that he had half an hour before the A. E.
finance man was due. The best way to get rid of a bad mood was to drown
it, he told himself, and headed for the shower.

       *       *       *       *       *

The shower room was a glittering plastic wonder, and the sheer luxury of
it eased Carrin's mind. He threw his clothes into the A. E. automatic
Kleen-presser, and adjusted the shower spray to a notch above "brisk."
The five-degrees-above-skin-temperature water beat against his thin
white body. Delightful! And then a relaxing rub-dry in the A. E.

Wonderful, he thought, as the towel stretched and kneaded his stringy
muscles. And it should be wonderful, he reminded himself. The A. E.
Auto-towel with shaving attachments had cost three hundred and thirteen
dollars, plus tax.

But worth every penny of it, he decided, as the A. E. shaver came out of
a corner and whisked off his rudimentary stubble. After all, what good
was life if you couldn't enjoy the luxuries?

His skin tingled when he switched off the Auto-towel. He should have
been feeling wonderful, but he wasn't. Miller's suicide kept nagging at
his mind, destroying the peace of his day off.

Was there anything else bothering him? Certainly there was nothing wrong
with the house. His papers were in order for the finance man.

"Have I forgotten something?" he asked out loud.

"The Avignon Electric finance man will be here in fifteen minutes," his
A. E. bathroom Wall-reminder whispered.

"I know that. Is there anything else?"

The Wall-reminder reeled off its memorized data--a vast amount of
minutiae about watering the lawn, having the Jet-lash checked, buying
lamb chops for Monday, and the like. Things he still hadn't found time

"All right, that's enough." He allowed the A. E. Auto-dresser to dress
him, skillfully draping a new selection of fabrics over his bony frame.
A whiff of fashionable masculine perfume finished him and he went into
the living room, threading his way between the appliances that lined the

A quick inspection of the dials on the wall assured him that the house
was in order. The breakfast dishes had been sanitized and stacked, the
house had been cleaned, dusted, polished, his wife's garments had been
hung up, his son's model rocket ships had been put back in the closet.

Stop worrying, you hypochondriac, he told himself angrily.

The door announced, "Mr. Pathis from Avignon Finance is here."

Carrin started to tell the door to open, when he noticed the Automatic

Good God, why hadn't he thought of it!

The Automatic Bartender was manufactured by Castile Motors. He had
bought it in a weak moment. A. E. wouldn't think very highly of that,
since they sold their own brand.

       *       *       *       *       *

He wheeled the bartender into the kitchen, and told the door to open.

"A very good day to you, sir," Mr. Pathis said.

Pathis was a tall, imposing man, dressed in a conservative tweed drape.
His eyes had the crinkled corners of a man who laughs frequently. He
beamed broadly and shook Carrin's hand, looking around the crowded
living room.

"A beautiful place you have here, sir. Beautiful! As a matter of fact, I
don't think I'll be overstepping the company's code to inform you that
yours is the nicest interior in this section."

Carrin felt a sudden glow of pride at that, thinking of the rows of
identical houses, on this block and the next, and the one after that.

"Now, then, is everything functioning properly?" Mr. Pathis asked,
setting his briefcase on a chair. "Everything in order?"

"Oh, yes," Carrin said enthusiastically. "Avignon Electric never goes
out of whack."

"The phone all right? Changes records for the full seventeen hours?"

"It certainly does," Carrin said. He hadn't had a chance to try out the
phone, but it was a beautiful piece of furniture.

"The Solido-projector all right? Enjoying the programs?"

"Absolutely perfect reception." He had watched a program just last
month, and it had been startlingly lifelike.

"How about the kitchen? Auto-cook in order? Recipe-master still knocking
'em out?"

"Marvelous stuff. Simply marvelous."

Mr. Pathis went on to inquire about his refrigerator, his vacuum
cleaner, his car, his helicopter, his subterranean swimming pool, and
the hundreds of other items Carrin had bought from Avignon Electric.

"Everything is swell," Carrin said, a trifle untruthfully since he
hadn't unpacked every item yet. "Just wonderful."

"I'm so glad," Mr. Pathis said, leaning back with a sigh of relief. "You
have no idea how hard we try to satisfy our customers. If a product
isn't right, back it comes, no questions asked. We believe in pleasing
our customers."

"I certainly appreciate it, Mr. Pathis."

       *       *       *       *       *

Carrin hoped the A. E. man wouldn't ask to see the kitchen. He
visualized the Castile Motors Bartender in there, like a porcupine in a
dog show.

"I'm proud to say that most of the people in this neighborhood buy from
us," Mr. Pathis was saying. "We're a solid firm."

"Was Mr. Miller a customer of yours?" Carrin asked.

"That fellow who killed himself?" Pathis frowned briefly. "He was, as a
matter of fact. That amazed me, sir, absolutely amazed me. Why, just
last month the fellow bought a brand-new Jet-lash from me, capable of
doing three hundred and fifty miles an hour on a straightaway. He was as
happy as a kid over it, and then to go and do a thing like that! Of
course, the Jet-lash brought up his debt a little."

"Of course."

"But what did that matter? He had every luxury in the world. And then he
went and hung himself."

"Hung himself?"

"Yes," Pathis said, the frown coming back. "Every modern convenience in
his house, and he hung himself with a piece of rope. Probably unbalanced
for a long time."

The frown slid off his face, and the customary smile replaced it. "But
enough of that! Let's talk about you."

The smile widened as Pathis opened his briefcase. "Now, then, your
account. You owe us two hundred and three thousand dollars and
twenty-nine cents, Mr. Carrin, as of your last purchase. Right?"

"Right," Carrin said, remembering the amount from his own papers.
"Here's my installment."

He handed Pathis an envelope, which the man checked and put in his

"Fine. Now you know, Mr. Carrin, that you won't live long enough to pay
us the full two hundred thousand, don't you?"

"No, I don't suppose I will," Carrin said soberly.

He was only thirty-nine, with a full hundred years of life before him,
thanks to the marvels of medical science. But at a salary of three
thousand a year, he still couldn't pay it all off and have enough to
support a family on at the same time.

"Of course, we would not want to deprive you of necessities, which in
any case is fully protected by the laws we helped formulate and pass. To
say nothing of the terrific items that are coming out next year. Things
you 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 sign
over 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 in
front 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 in
life, not saddle him with--"

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

"Sure," Carrin said. "Only--"

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

"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's
earnings--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 know
Mellon down the block? Well, don't say I said it, but he's already
mortgaged 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'll
work out something for him. Service to the customer is our job and we
know 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 marvelous
things that filled the house. And after all, it was only thirty years
out 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.

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

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

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

Right's right, he thought, walking Pathis to the door. This house will
be Billy's some day. His and his wife's. They certainly will want
everything 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 on
the solido. After twisting the Ezi-dial, he discovered that there was
nothing 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 on
the ear. "Look."

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

"It's lovely," he said.

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

"Going to dial supper," she said, and went to the kitchen. Carrin
smiled, thinking that soon she would be able to dial the meals without
moving out of the living room. He settled back in his chair, and his son
walked 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. "Come
on, tell Dad what's the trouble."

Billy sat down on a packing case and put his chin in his hands. He
looked 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 to
be a Master Repairman and a rocket pilot. The repairmen were the elite.
It was their job to fix the automatic repair machines. The repair
machines could fix just about anything, but you couldn't have a machine
fix the machine that fixed the machine. That was where the Master
Repairmen came in.

But it was a highly competitive field and only a very few of the best
brains 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 there
aren't any."

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

"They've been saying that for a hundred years," Carrin said, "and they
still 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 with
no air."

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

"What's that?" Carrin asked, sitting up straight. "Is there anything you
haven'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 to
do 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 met
your mother--"

Leela giggled.

"--and I wanted a home of my own. It'll be the same with you. You'll pay
off 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 for
civilized 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 were
reproaching him. After he had slaved for years to give the ungrateful
whelp every luxury!

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

The boy didn't answer.

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

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

"I was just wondering how I could go to Mars," the boy said. "With the
debt, 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 mean
any of that stuff about going to Mars. I really didn't."

"I'm glad of that," Leela answered.

"Just forget I mentioned it," Billy said, smiling stiffly. He stood up
and raced upstairs.

"Probably gone to play with his rockets," Leela said. "He's such a
little devil."

       *       *       *       *       *

The Carrins ate a quiet supper, and then it was time for Mr. Carrin to
go to work. He was on night shift this month. He kissed his wife
good-by, climbed into his Jet-lash and roared to the factory. The
automatic gates recognized him and opened. He parked and walked in.

Automatic lathes, automatic presses--everything was automatic. The
factory was huge and bright, and the machines hummed softly to
themselves, doing their job and doing it well.

Carrin walked to the end of the automatic washing machine assembly line,
to relieve the man there.

"Everything all right?" he asked.

"Sure," the man said. "Haven't had a bad one all year. These new models
here have built-in voices. They don't light up like the old ones."

Carrin sat down where the man had sat and waited for the first washing
machine to come through. His job was the soul of simplicity. He just sat
there and the machines went by him. He pressed a button on them and
found out if they were all right. They always were. After passing him,
the washing machines went to the packaging section.

The first one slid by on the long slide of rollers. He pressed the
starting button on the side.

"Ready for the wash," the washing machine said.

Carrin pressed the release and let it go by.

That boy of his, Carrin thought. Would he grow up and face his
responsibilities? Would he mature and take his place in society? Carrin
doubted it. The boy was a born rebel. If anyone got to Mars, it would be
his kid.

But the thought didn't especially disturb him.

"Ready for the wash." Another machine went by.

Carrin remembered something about Miller. The jovial man had always been
talking about the planets, always kidding about going off somewhere and
roughing it. He hadn't, though. He'd committed suicide.

"Ready for the wash."

Carrin had eight hours in front of him, and he loosened his belt to
prepare for it. Eight hours of pushing buttons and listening to a
machine announce its readiness.

"Ready for the wash."

He pressed the release.

"Ready for the wash."

Carrin's mind strayed from the job, which didn't need much attention in
any case. He wished he had done what he had longed to do as a youngster.

It would have been great to be a rocket pilot, to push a button and go
to Mars.

                                                     --ROBERT SHECKLEY

Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Galaxy Science Fiction_ December 1952.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.

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