Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
I am a Nucleus
By STEPHEN BARR
Illustrated by GAUGHAN
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction February 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
No doubt whatever about it, I had the Indian
sign on me … my comfortably untidy world had
suddenly turned into a monstrosity of order!
When I got home from the office, I was not so much tired as beaten down, but the effect is similar. I let myself into the apartment, which had an absentee-wife look, and took a cold shower. The present downtown temperature, according to the radio, was eighty-seven degrees, but according to my Greenwich Village thermometer, it was ninety-six. I got dressed and went into the living room, and wished ardently that my wife Molly were here to tell me why the whole place looked so woebegone.
What do they do, I asked myself, that I have left undone? I’ve vacuumed the carpet, I’ve dusted and I’ve straightened the cushions…. Ah! The ashtrays. I emptied them, washed them and put them back, but still the place looked wife-deserted.
It had been a bad day; I had forgotten to wind the alarm clock, so I’d had to hurry to make a story conference at one of the TV studios I write for. I didn’t notice the impending rain storm and had no umbrella when I reached the sidewalk, to find myself confronted with an almost tropical downpour. I would have turned back, but a taxi came up and a woman got out, so I dashed through the rain and got in.
“Madison and Fifty-fourth,” I said.
“Right,” said the driver, and I heard the starter grind, and then go on grinding. After some futile efforts, he turned to me. “Sorry, Mac. You’ll have to find another cab. Good hunting.”
If possible, it was raining still harder. I opened my newspaper over my hat and ran for the subway: three blocks. Whizzing traffic held me up at each crossing and I was soaked when I reached the platform, just in time to miss the local. After an abnormal delay, I got one which exactly missed the express at Fourteenth Street. The same thing happened at both ends of the crosstown shuttle, but I found the rain had stopped when I got out at Fifty-first and Lexington.
As I walked across to Madison Avenue, I passed a big excavation where they were getting ready to put up a new office building. There was the usual crowd of buffs watching the digging machines and, in particular, a man with a pneumatic drill who was breaking up some hard-packed clay. While I looked, a big lump of it fell away, and for an instant I was able to see something that looked like a chunk of dirty glass, the size of an old-fashioned hatbox. It glittered brilliantly in the sunlight, and then his chattering drill hit it.
There was a faint bang and the thing disintegrated. It knocked him on his back, but he got right up and I realized he was not hurt. At the moment of the explosion—if so feeble a thing can be called one—I felt something sting my face and, on touching it, found blood on my hand. I mopped at it with my handkerchief but, though slight, the bleeding would not stop, so I went into a drugstore and bought some pink adhesive which I put on the tiny cut. When I got to the studio, I found that I had missed the story conference.
During the day, by actual count, I heard the phrase “I’m just spitballing” eight times, and another Madison Avenue favorite, “The whole ball of wax,” twelve times. However, my story had been accepted without change because nobody had noticed my absence from the conference room. There you have what is known as the Advertising World, the Advertising game or the advertising racket, depending upon which rung of the ladder you have achieved.
The subway gave a repeat performance going home, and as I got to the apartment house we live in, the cop on the afternoon beat was standing there talking to the doorman.
He said, “Hello, Mr. Graham. I guess you must have just have missed it at your office building.” I looked blank and he explained, “We just heard it a little while ago: all six elevators in your building jammed at the same time. Sounds crazy. I guess you just missed it.”
Anything can happen in advertising, I thought. “That’s right, Danny, I just missed it,” I said, and went on in.
Psychiatry tells us that some people are accident-prone; I, on the other hand, seemed recently to be coincidence-prone, fluke-happy, and except for the alarm clock, I’d had no control over what had been going on.
I went into our little kitchen to make a drink and reread the directions Molly had left, telling me how to get along by myself until she got back from her mother’s in Oyster Bay, a matter of ten days. How to make coffee, how to open a can, whom to call if I took sick and such. My wife used to be a trained nurse and she is quite convinced that I cannot take a breath without her. She is right, but not for the reasons she supposes.
I opened the refrigerator to get some ice and saw another notice: “When you take out the Milk or Butter, Put it Right Back. And Close the Door, too.”
Intimidated, I took my drink into the living room and sat down in front of the typewriter. As I stared at the novel that was to liberate me from Madison Avenue, I noticed a mistake and picked up a pencil. When I put it down, it rolled off the desk, and with my eyes on the manuscript, I groped under the chair for it. Then I looked down. The pencil was standing on its end.
There, I thought to myself, is that one chance in a million we hear about, and picked up the pencil. I turned back to my novel and drank some of the highball in hopes of inspiration and surcease from the muggy heat, but nothing came. I went back and read the whole chapter to try to get a forward momentum, but came to a dead stop at the last sentence.
Damn the heat, damn the pencil, damn Madison Avenue and advertising. My drink was gone and I went back to the kitchen and read Molly’s notes again to see if they would be like a letter from her. I noticed one that I had missed, pinned to the door of the dumbwaiter: “Garbage picked up at 6:30 AM so the idea is to Put it Here the Night Before. I love you.” What can you do when the girl loves you?
I made another drink and went and stared out of the living room window at the roof opposite. The Sun was out again and a man with a stick was exercising his flock of pigeons. They wheeled in a circle, hoping to be allowed to perch, but were not allowed to.
Pigeons fly as a rule in formation and turn simultaneously, so that their wings all catch the sunlight at the same time. I was thinking about this decorative fact when I saw that as they were making a turn, they seemed to bunch up together. By some curious chance, they all wanted the same place in the sky to turn in, and several collided and fell.
The man was as surprised as I and went to one of the dazed birds and picked it up. He stood there shaking his head from side to side, stroking its feathers.
My speculations about this peculiar aerial traffic accident were interrupted by loud voices in the hallway. Since our building is usually very well behaved, I was astonished to hear what sounded like an incipient free-for-all, and among the angry voices I recognized that of my neighbor, Nat, a very quiet guy who works on a newspaper and has never, to my knowledge, given wild parties, particularly in the late afternoon.
“You can’t say a thing like that to me!” I heard him shout. “I tell you I got that deck this afternoon and they weren’t opened till we started to play!”
Several other loud voices started at the same time.