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The Machineries of Joy

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“Wouldn’t we be lonely?” she said.

So that’s how it was the morning of the new world. They had awakened to the soft sounds of an earth that was now no more than a meadow, and the cities of the earth sinking back into seas of saber-grass, marigold, marguerite and morning-glory. They had taken it with remarkable calm at first, perhaps because they had not liked the city for so many years, and had had so many friends who were not truly friends, and had lived a boxed and separate life of their own within a mechanical hive.

The husband arose and looked out the window and observed very calmly, as if it were a weather condition, “Everyone’s gone,” knowing this just by the sounds the city had ceased to make.

They took their time over breakfast, for the boy was still asleep, and then the husband sat back and said, “Now I must plan what to do.”

“Do? Why … why, you’ll go to work, of course.”

“You still don’t believe it, do you?” He laughed. “That I won’t be rushing off each day at eight-ten, that Jim won’t go to school again ever. School’s out for all of us! No more pencils, no more books, no more boss’s sassy looks! We’re let out, darling, and we’ll never come back to the silly damn dull routines. Come on!”

And he had walked her through the still and empty city streets.

“They didn’t die,” he said. “They just … went away.”

“What about the other cities?”

He went to an outdoor phone booth and dialed Chicago, then New York, then San Francisco.

Silence. Silence. Silence.

“That’s it,” he said, replacing the receiver.

“I feel guilty,” she said. “Them gone and us here. And … I feel happy. Why? I should be unhappy.”

“Should you? It’s no tragedy. They weren’t tortured or blasted or burned. They went easily and they didn’t know. And now we owe nothing to no one. Our only responsibility is being happy. Thirty more years of happiness, wouldn’t that be good?”

“But … then we must have more children!”

“To repopulate the world?” He shook his head slowly, calmly. “No. Let Jim be the last. After he’s grown and gone let the horses and cows and ground squirrels and garden spiders have the world. They’ll get on. And someday some other species that can combine a natural happiness with a natural curiosity will build cities that won’t even look like cities to us, and survive. Right now, let’s go pack a basket, wake Jim, and get going on that long thirty-year summer vacation. I’ll beat you to the house!”

He took a sledge hammer from the small rail car, and while he worked alone for half an hour fixing the rusted rails into place the woman and the boy ran along the shore. They came back with dripping shells, a dozen or more, and some beautiful pink pebbles, and sat and the boy took school from the mother, doing homework on a pad with a pencil for a time, and then at high noon the man came down, his coat off, his tie thrown aside, and they drank orange pop, watching the bubbles surge up, glutting, inside the bottles. It was quiet. They listened to the sun tune the old iron rails. The smell of hot tar on the ties moved about them in the salt wind, as the husband tapped his atlas map lightly and gently.

“We’ll go to Sacramento next month, May, then work up toward Seattle. Should make that by July first, July’s a good month in Washington, then back down as the weather cools, to Yellowstone, a few miles a day, hunt here, fish there …”

The boy, bored, moved away to throw sticks into the sea and wade out like a dog to retrieve them.

The man went on: “Winter in Tucson, then, part of the winter, moving toward Florida, up the coast in the spring, and maybe New York by June. Two years from now, Chicago in the summer. Winter, three years from now, what about Mexico City? Anywhere the rails lead us, anywhere at all, and if we come to an old offshoot rail line we don’t know anything about, what the hell, we’ll just take it, go down it, to see where it goes. And some year, by God, we’ll boat down the Mississippi, always wanted to do that. Enough to last us a lifetime. And that’s just how long I want to take to do it all …”

His voice faded. He started to fumble the map shut, but, before he could move, a bright thing fell through the air and hit the paper. It rolled off into the sand and made a wet lump.

His wife glanced at the wet place in the sand and then swiftly searched his face. His solemn eyes were too bright. And down one cheek was a track of wetness.

She gasped. She took his hand and held it, tight.

He clenched her hand very hard, his eyes shut now, and slowly he said, with difficulty, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we went to sleep tonight and in the night, somehow, it all came back. All the foolishness, all the noise, all the hate, all the terrible things, all the nightmares, all the wicked people and stupid children, all the mess, all the smallness, all the confusion, all the hope, all the need, all the love. Wouldn’t it be nice.”

She waited and nodded her head once.

Then both of them started.

For standing between them, they knew not for how long, was their son, an empty pop bottle in one hand.

The boy’s face was pale. With his free hand he reached out to touch his father’s cheek, where the single tear had made its track.

“You,” he said. “Oh, Dad, you. You haven’t anyone to play with, either.”

The wife started to speak.

The husband moved to take the boy’s hand.

The boy jerked back. “Silly! Oh, silly! Silly fools! Oh, you dumb, dumb!” And, whirling, he rushed down to the ocean and stood there crying loudly.

The wife rose to follow, but the husband stopped her.

“No. Let him.”

And then they both grew cold and quiet. For the boy, below on the shore, crying steadily, now was writing on a piece of paper and stuffing it in the pop bottle and ramming the tin cap back on and taking the bottle and giving it a great glittering heave up in the air and out into the tidal sea.

What, thought the wife, what did he write on the note? What’s in the bottle?

The bottle moved out in the waves.

The boy stopped crying.

After a long while he walked up the shore, to stand looking at his parents. His face was neither bright nor dark, alive nor dead, ready nor resigned; it seemed a curious mixture that simply made do with time, weather and these people. They looked at him and beyond to the bay, where the bottle containing the scribbled note was almost out of sight now, shining in the waves.

Did he write what we wanted? thought the woman, did he write what he heard us just wish, just say?

Or did he write something for only himself, she wondered, that tomorrow he might wake and find himself alone in an empty world, no one around, no man, no woman, no father, no mother, no fool grownups with fool wishes, so he could trudge up to the railroad tracks and take the handcar motoring, a solitary boy, across the continental wilderness, on eternal voyages and picnics?

Is that what he wrote in the note?


She searched his colorless eyes, could not read the answer; dared not ask.

Gull shadows sailed over and kited their faces with sudden passing coolness.

“Time to go,” someone said.

They loaded the wicker basket onto the rail car. The woman tied her large bonnet securely in place with its yellow ribbon, they set the boy’s pail of shells on the floorboards, then the husband put on his tie, his vest, his coat, his hat, and they all sat on the benches of the car looking out at the sea where the bottled note was far out, blinking, on the horizon.

“Is asking enough?” said the boy. “Does wishing work?”

“Sometimes … too well.”

“It depends on what you ask for.”
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