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Title: The Good Work
Author: Thomas, Theodore L.
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 "The Good Work" ***

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                             THE GOOD WORK

                         BY THEODORE L. THOMAS

                 _In the cities, 350 billions swarmed
                 like termites in a hill; but Jeremiah
               Winthrop still called himself a man...._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
             Worlds of If Science Fiction, February 1959.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Tall and rawboned was Jeremiah Winthrop. Narrow of shoulder and shallow
of chest he was, but no matter. There was a dignity to the man that
showed itself in every movement. Here was one who still called himself
a man, one whose traditions sprang from the rocky New England soil
that had nourished his forebears. The mold that produces such a man is
not easily bent or broken, not even in a world of three hundred and
fifty billion people, not even in a world where the rocky New England
soil lies buried and forgotten beneath the foundations of monstrous

Jeremiah Winthrop rode the spiral escalator up, up to the two-part
cubicle he called home on the one hundred and forty-eighth floor.
He stood swaying slightly as the escalator wound its serpentine way
upwards. Others rode with him, tight people, tense people, pushed
together, staring straight as they rode the spiral escalator up. And
now and then at a turn or a bend a man would elbow his way out. He'd
leave the upflowing river of people and step onto a landing as his
floor came by. But the escalator was still crowded as it passed the one
hundred and forty-eighth floor and Winthrop stepped off. He was not one
of the lucky ones who lived high near the roof where it was at least
possible to think about the air and the light and the sun.

Winthrop boarded a moving belt that carried him over to his own
corridor. He walked down the corridor for ten minutes. It was easy
walking, for there were far fewer people now. Finally he came to his
own door. He inserted his thumb in the thumbhole, slid the door open
and walked in. A tousle-headed youngster sat on the floor playing with
a plastic box. The boy looked up as Winthrop entered.

"Daddy!" he shouted. He flung himself to his feet, dashed across the
room and grabbed his father around the legs.

"Hello, Davy," said Winthrop, ruffling the curly brown hair. "How's the
little man?"

"Fine, Daddy. And Mommy says we can go up on the roof in another month.
Will you come with us? This time? You never go with us, Daddy. Will you
come up with us in a month from now?"

Winthrop looked over the boy's head at his wife, Ann. The smile faded
from his face. He said, "A month? I thought it was our turn again in a
week. What happened?"

Ann shook her head and pressed the back of a hand against her
forehead. "I don't know. They have had to re-schedule everybody.
Another eighteen hundred babies born in the building this week. They
all have to get a little sun. I don't know."

Winthrop pushed Davy gently to one side and held the boy to him as he
walked over to Ann. He put a hand in the small of her back and held her
against his chest. She rested her head against the upper part of his
arm and leaned against him.

Ann lifted her head, stood on her toes and kissed Winthrop. She pulled
away and led him over to a chair, Davy still hanging on to his leg.
"You must be tired," she said. "Ten hours you've been out. Were you
able to.... Did you--"

"No," said Winthrop. "Nothing. Not so much as a soybean." He looked
at his wife and smiled. "I guess the time has come for us to eat that
potato. We've been saving it for a month."

Ann's eyes wrinkled as she looked down at him. "Oh. I--I gave it to the
Brookses. They haven't had anything in weeks." The words began to pour
out. "We have done so well, really, in the last few weeks that I felt
sorry for them. We had those cabbage leaves and three potatoes and even
that piece of fish four months ago. I couldn't help myself. I gave--I
gave our potato to them. They were so sick of Standard Fare they were
beginning to get depressed, really depressed. I--"

Winthrop reached up and put an arm around her hips and said, "Don't
think about it, darling." He was silent for a moment, and then he
continued, "I think I'll go down and see if John Barlow has some work
for me. Let's have a quick dinner of Standard Fare and then I'll go."
He got up and walked over to the sink and began washing Davy's hands,
talking, joshing, teasing a little as he did so.

Ann took three glasses from the tiny cabinet. She went to the synthetic
milk faucet and filled the glasses and then put them on the table. She
went to the bread slot and removed six slices of bread. One after the
other she dropped the six slices of brown bread through the toaster.
She picked up a knife and scooped big gobs of rich yellow synthetic
butter out of the butter slot and spread it on the toast. She made
a pile of the toast on a plate and then cut the pile in half. "All
right," she called. And she put the toast on the table and sat down.

Winthrop helped Davy into a chair and then sat down himself. He bent
his head and spoke a brief blessing. And they all ate. They ate
Standard Fare, as countless billions of other people did that night,
and every night, from birth to death, Standard Fare.

When the meal was done Winthrop got up and kissed Ann and Davy
goodbye. He rode down the spiral escalator, down to the ground floor,
and below. Great throngs of people rode with him, crowded in on each
other. He rode down to the fifteenth sub-level and changed to a belt.
He rode past the crowded TV theaters, the amusement halls. He stepped
off and went down a narrow side alley where some of the shops were.
Immediately the crowds fell off. A little way down the alley Winthrop
turned into the door of a tiny store. It was empty except for John
Barlow, the owner.

"Nice to see you," said Barlow, springing up and taking Winthrop's
hand. "I was just thinking about you. In fact, I was going to come up
and see you in the next day or two. Come in and sit down."

Barlow sat in the chair, Winthrop on the small counter. The two men
filled the store completely. "That sounds good, John. Do you have some
work for me?"

Barlow looked long at Winthrop, and slowly shook his head. "No,
Jeremiah. No. I don't even have work for myself any more." He hesitated
a moment and went on quietly, "I'm going out of business, Jeremiah. I
can't make it work. I don't take in enough money to keep my stock up.
People don't need money, what with free movies and clothes and food and
everything else. No one buys food. They all live on Standard Fare and
they don't seem to care any more. So now I'll have to join them, unless
I can find other work."

"I'm very sorry, John. I feel I helped drive you out of business. I
never gave you money for what I took."

Barlow shook his head. "No, Jeremiah. You always worked for everything.
Other people are not as willing to work as you are; they all want
something for nothing. Who else would be vaccinated and take the
immunization shots so he could go all the way across the city for me
the way you do?"

They sat quietly. Winthrop said, "Where is it all going to end, John?
What's going to happen to everybody?"

"I don't know. Some people work; there must be jobs somewhere. I
suppose they get them through the Ministry of Government Employment,
and you know what people say about that. Government workers won't even
talk about it; everybody says they're ashamed of it. I don't know
what's going to happen. Except--I'm through. I'm going to take my stock
home with me tonight, and that ends it."

Winthrop looked at the box that contained all of Barlow's stock. The
box measured about one foot on a side.

"Jeremiah, I want you to have something." Barlow reached down to
the bottom of the box and brought out an object that he held toward

Winthrop looked at it and gasped. "An egg. A real hen's egg. I
recognize it from the pictures." Winthrop looked up. "But I can't take
it, John. I can't."

"I want you to have it, Jeremiah. I want you and Ann and Davy to have
it. Now don't argue. I'll wrap it up and you take it right home."

Barlow turned and lifted a small box down from a niche. He lined the
box with synthetic cotton and gently nestled the egg in the center.
After covering the egg with another layer of cotton, he closed the box
and wrapped it and tied it with a broad white ribbon under which he
slipped a little card of cooking instructions. Then he handed the box
to Winthrop. "Take it home, Jeremiah. I'll be up to see you sometime
soon. Go on now." And he urged Winthrop off the counter and out the

Winthrop went, holding the box in both hands. As he worked his way
through the crowds, he held the box to his stomach, turning his
shoulders to meet the press of people. He was still holding it with
both hands half an hour later when he entered his home.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ann looked up, surprised. "Jeremiah, I didn't expect you home so soon."
Her eyes fixed on the package. "What is it? What have you got?"

Winthrop walked to the table, put the package on it, and carefully
began to open it without saying a word. Ann and Davy stood close to
him; Davy climbed on a chair to see better. When Winthrop lifted off
the top layer of cotton, Ann's eyes widened and she clasped her hands
together and stared, silently.

"What is it, Daddy?"

"It's an egg, son. A hen's egg."

"Is it something to eat?"

"Yes, son. It is." Winthrop looked at his wife and said, "Shall we eat
it now?"

Ann nodded, quickly read the cooking instructions, and set about
preparing scrambled egg. Winthrop got out the cooking pan, wiped off
the dust, and set it down near her. She smiled at him and put a large
chunk of butter in it and placed the pan on the heater. When the butter
bubbled, she poured the beaten egg into the pan; it hissed as it
struck the hot butter. She began to stir the egg as it cooked. Winthrop
picked Davy up so he could see into the pan as the egg thickened. In a
moment it was done.

Ann lifted three small dishes from a cupboard, placed them on the
table, and carefully scraped the egg onto the plates. Buttered toast
and milk came next, then they sat down to eat. Winthrop said a grace.

They ate in silence.

Davy looked up after his egg was gone and said, "I don't like it very
much. I like it some, but not very much."

Winthrop reached over and ruffled his hair, saying to Ann, "It would
have been better if we'd had some salt, I guess. But it was good
anyway. I've often wondered what an egg tasted like."

He looked down at the empty plates and stared at them. Then he said
quickly, "Davy, it's your bedtime. You hop on in now."

Davy's face grew long, but then Winthrop looked at him, and he climbed
off his chair and went over and pulled his father down and kissed him
on the cheek. "Good night, Daddy."

"Good night, son."

Ann took Davy by the hand and led him into the bedroom. Winthrop
listened to the chatter and then to the prayers. He sat and listened
as he stared at the three egg-stained plates on the table. The plates
pushed into his mind, occupied it, filled it, until there was nothing
else. And at that moment the integrity of Jeremiah Winthrop broke.

He was still staring at the plates when Ann came out and sat down
beside him. She too looked at her husband, looked, and looked again,
closer. There were tears in his eyes.

She leaned toward him and put a hand on his shoulder. "What is it,
Jeremiah?" she asked quietly.

He turned full toward her, started to speak, but could not. He pointed
to the dirty plates and then cleared his throat. "Ann, that's the last
of it. It's getting worse all the time. There's no work for a man.
What are we going to do? Is Davy going to live the rest of his life
satisfied with Standard Fare? Can we watch him grow up not knowing
what it feels like to work? Ann...." He stopped and sat quietly for a
moment. "I've got to go to the Ministry of Government Employment."

She said, "Jeremiah, are you sure? We've always been able to manage on
our own. We've never needed help from the government."

"Ann--" He stood up and began pacing across the room. "How can we sit
and watch this happen to our boy? We can't take him out in all those
people very often. We can't take him to the roof. Ann, he's a good boy.
We can't let him live like this."

"But how will you feel? You have to make your own way. You've always
believed that."

Winthrop's stooped figure bent even more. He stopped pacing and stood
with his hands hanging at his sides, his chin on his chest. "I know,"
he said quietly. "I know. Help me, Ann. What should we do?"

She flew across the room to him and they clung together. After a moment
she said, "All right, Jeremiah. I knew this would come some day. We
will go down tomorrow to the Ministry of Government Employment and see
if they have any work for you. Maybe they have, and maybe it won't be
so bad. Maybe it's good work after all. We'll see."

       *       *       *       *       *

The family was up early the next morning, up and eating Standard Fare.
After breakfast they began to get ready to go out. Ann went over all
the clothes, sponging spots off the slick fabric. Jeremiah Winthrop
paced back and forth with slow measured steps, his hands clasped behind
him, his head bent.

Ann took a little cord harness from the cabinet and slipped it over
Davy's head. She pulled the cords taut and tied them around him. She
passed a light piece of cord around her waist and tied the other end of
it to Davy's harness. She tied a second piece of cord to the other side
of the harness. Then she said to Winthrop, "Jeremiah, we're ready."

Winthrop stepped over to Davy's side. He passed the second piece of
cord around his waist and tied it fast. "I'm ready," he said.

They went out the door and it was not bad at first. Riding down the
spiral escalator it began to get crowded; people pressed shoulder to
shoulder. Davy clutched a parent's hand in each of his own. When they
arrived at the belts below ground-level, the press grew greater. Ann
and Winthrop used their legs to make room for Davy to stand on the
moving belt. The upper portions of their bodies pushed out against the
packed mass of humanity. They held their arms bent at the elbows to
form a bridge around Davy's head, stooping a little to do so. Silently
they pushed back against the surge of people.

They changed belts by walking in a kind of lockstep and again formed a
trembling bridge with their arms around Davy on the next belt. Twice
more they changed belts and in two hours they arrived at the building
next to their own. It was easier, going up the spiral escalator.

They came out into a huge room filled with people. Holding tight to
Davy's leash, they worked their way through the crowds, seeking a
registration desk. In half an hour they found one.

The line of people was only a few hundred yards long in front of that
particular desk. Jeremiah and Ann joined the line at the end, smiling
at each other. In four short hours they found themselves at the desk.

Winthrop gave his name and number to the man and explained why he
wanted an interview with one of the ministers. The man swiftly filled
out a set of papers, assigned Winthrop a line number and a chair
number, and pointed the direction to take.

Jeremiah, Ann, and Davy slowly passed through the crowds in the room,
this time seeking their line. They finally found it and Winthrop gave
his papers to the man in charge. Again they were fortunate. The line
to which Winthrop was assigned did not even reach out into the room;
the end of it had progressed into the long corridor that led to the
minister's office.

Winthrop settled into his moving chair while Ann and Davy bustled
around him and made him comfortable. Then they said goodbye.

"Ann, be careful going home. Go very slowly. Don't be afraid to scream
out if Davy begins to get crushed."

"Don't worry, dear. We'll be all right." Ann smiled at him, but her
eyes were too bright.

Winthrop saw it and stood up from his chair. "I'll take you home and
then come back."

"No." She gently pushed him back into the chair. "We'll lose another
day, and Davy and I will be all right. Now you just stay here. Goodbye,
dear." She leaned over and kissed him.

Winthrop said, "All right, but don't visit me, Ann. I'll be home as
soon as this is over, and it's too hard on you to make the trip alone."

She smiled and nodded. Winthrop kissed Davy and ruffled his hair. Then
Ann tied both ends of Davy's leash around her waist, and she and Davy
walked off. Both of them turned to wave frequently until the crowd
swallowed them up.

       *       *       *       *       *

The days passed slowly for Winthrop. The corridor seemed to stretch on
interminably as he slowly moved down it in his chair. Every few hundred
yards there was the inevitable milk faucet and the bread and butter
slots, and every few feet there was the inevitable TV screen alive with
people talking, singing, laughing, shouting, or playing. Winthrop
turned each one off as he came abreast of it, if his neighbors did not
object. None of the people in the line were talkative, and that suited
Winthrop. Mostly he sat thinking over his forthcoming interview. Two
minutes to explain why he should be given work was not very long. But
the Ministers of Government Employment were busy men.

Toward the end of the second week Winthrop had a surprise visit from
Ann. She threw her arms around him and explained that Helen Barlow had
come to see her and had sent Ann off to visit. And it was while Ann
was there that Winthrop moved up to a position from which he could see
the door of the minister's office. When Ann left, she went with the
comforting knowledge that it would be only a few days more.

The time came when Winthrop was at the door. Then, suddenly, he was in
the anteroom, and before he could fully realize it he was standing in a
very small room before the minister.

Winthrop identified himself and said, "I have a boy of four, a fine
boy, and a fine wife too. I want to work the way a man should to give
them something besides Standard Fare. Here is what I have worked at in
the last five years." And Winthrop listed the things he had done.

The minister listened. He had white hair and a lined face whose skin
seemed to be pulled too tight. When Winthrop had finished, the minister
looked steadily into his face for a moment; Winthrop could almost
feel the probing of the level blue eyes. Then the minister turned to a
device that loomed over him to one side and punched a complex series of
buttons. There was a whirring noise behind the wall of the tiny room,
and then a small packet of cards appeared at the slot in the bottom
of the device. The minister picked them out and glanced at them, and
an odd expression of sadness swept across his face. It was gone in an
instant, and then he looked up and said, "Yes, Mr. Winthrop. We have
a job for you, and the full six hours a day, too. You will be on the
maintenance crew of your building. Your job is explained here--" he
passed over a card--"and it consists of tightening the nuts on the
expansion joints in the framework of the building. It is very important
to do it right, so read the card carefully." Winthrop nodded eagerly.

The minister handed over another card and said, "Here is a description
of the daily reports you must turn in." Another card. "Here is how you
and your chief decide your working schedule, and you must adhere to it;
it is very important. The chief of your tightening crew will go over
it with you. Here is your requisition for the special wrench you will
need. Here is your pay schedule; you can decide if you want to be paid
in money or produce. And one very important thing." The minister leaned
forward to emphasize his remarks. "You are not allowed to talk about
your job with anyone, not even with your best friends. Is that clear?"

Winthrop nodded. "Yes, sir."

"The reason is that we do not want people fighting over jobs. Not many
who come in here really want to work, but there are a few. We have
to pick good men for this work; those buildings must be kept in good
condition. Others less fortunate than you might not understand that you
are just the man we need. So no talking about your work--no talk of any
kind--on pain of dismissal." The minister sat back. "Well, I guess that
is about all. Report for work in the morning. Good luck." And he held
out his hand.

Winthrop shook it and said, "Thank you, sir. I'll work hard for you.
I didn't know you needed men for this work or I would have been here
sooner. I had always heard that.... Well, thank you." And Winthrop
turned to go. Out of the corner of his eye as he turned, he thought he
saw again that ephemeral expression of sadness, but when he looked the
minister full in the face it was gone. Winthrop went out the side door.
The entire interview had taken one and three quarter minutes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Winthrop left early the next morning so as not to be late for work.
As it turned out, he was unable to get off a belt at the proper
landing--too many people in the way--and it took him fifteen minutes to
retrace his steps. He arrived exactly on time.

The chief of the tightening crew was a big, bluff man with a red face.
He took Winthrop in tow and showed him how they worked. The crew chief
had a vast knowledge of the crawl spaces in the interior of the
building. He showed Winthrop the blueprints from which the tightening
crew worked, and explained that by coördinating their work with all the
other tightening crews they made one complete round of the building
every eight years. By then it was time to do it again; the nuts worked
loose from the constant expansion and contraction. It was quite a job
keeping track of the area that the tightening crew covered; it was a
large crew. But each member turned in daily reports, and there was a
large clerical staff to keep the records straight. In fact, there were
more men keeping records than there were doing the actual tightening
work. The chief pointed out that Winthrop was to be one of the elite,
one of those whose work justified the existence of the huge staff. The
tone of the chief's voice made it clear that there was a kind of quiet
pride among the men who did the actual work. The chief issued Winthrop
his wrench and showed him where to start.

The day passed swiftly. The tightening of the nuts was not so bad,
although Winthrop's arm grew sore after a while. The difficult part
was gaining access to the nuts in the first place. Winthrop had to use
all his agility to wriggle through confined places. Yet it was good to
be working again, good to feel the sweat start from his brow from hard
work instead of from the press of people.

In a week Winthrop was no longer dog-tired when he got home at night.
There was much laughter in the Winthrop household, much reading and
playing games and telling stories. They even watched the TV screen now
and then; somehow it no longer seemed so fruitless. The monotony of
Standard Fare was broken; the head of the house was working steadily.
It was now possible to plan ahead for a variety of meals, and that made
it easier to wait when there was nothing to eat but Standard Fare.

Winthrop developed skill and speed at locating and tightening the nuts.
He soon covered in a day a larger area than any other man, and the
chief told him that he was his best man. Winthrop came to share the
pride and sense of responsibility that all the other tighteners felt.
They were a select group, and they knew it; all the others looked up to

It was after dinner one night that Winthrop sat back, hooked his thumbs
in the armholes of his shirt, and watched Ann and Davy finish the
half-dozen peas. They looked at him and smiled, and his heart warmed.
"You know," he said, "I think I'll visit John Barlow for a few minutes.
I haven't seen him since he gave up his store. Do you mind, dear?"

Ann shook her head. "No, you run along. I'll play with Davy for a while
and then put him to bed. Don't stay too long."

Barlow answered Winthrop's knock. "Well, Jeremiah. Come in, man, come

Winthrop walked in and the two men stood looking at each other.
Winthrop was surprised at how well Barlow looked, and he said so.

Barlow laughed. "Yes, the last time we met I was pretty far down in
the dumps, I guess. But I'm working, Jeremiah. I'm actually working.
Important work, too!"

His enthusiasm was infectious and Winthrop found himself laughing. "I'm
glad for you, John. And I know how you feel, because I'm working too."

Barlow stepped forward and wrung his hand. "That's fine, man, fine!
Government, I guess, just like mine. It isn't so bad, is it? Not nearly
as bad as we thought. Good steady important work makes a man feel like
it's worth living."

Helen Barlow came out of the other room. "Why, Jeremiah. I didn't know
you were here. How nice to see you."

"Yes, and he's working," said Barlow.

"Oh, I'm so happy for you, Jeremiah. Congratulations. And that reminds
me, John." She turned to her husband. "You have to get ready to go to
work. You know how long it takes to get there even though it's in the

"Right. I'll get ready. Jeremiah, I'm sorry that I have to go, but why
don't you stay?"

"No, John. I just stopped in to say hello. You come up and see us real

"I certainly will."

There was an exchange of good-byes, and Winthrop left.

Barlow went into the other room and came out immediately with his
wrench. He waved it playfully at his wife. "Got to go," he said. "The
loosening crew won't wait." And he blew a kiss at his wife and went off
to work.

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