Cost of Living

by Robert Sheckley

Adapted to Chat Story format by Captivated Chat

Carrin: Miller’s suicide doesn’t concern me. But why did that fat, jovial man kill himself?

Eve: Good morning, dear, how’s breakfast?

Carrin: Sit down and try some OJ.

Eve: Morning, honey.  Morning, Billy.

Billy: Mmornumum.

Carrin: I really like our new A.E. ham ‘n eggs.

Eve: The Avignon Electric finance man is coming, so remember to tell him so.

Carrin: This is an important day. And since it is also my day off, I’ll see Billy to the door.

Billy: Have a day, Pops.

Carrin: You have a good day, too. Turn that frown upside down, B-man!

Billy: Mm-mm, man.

Carrin: See you later. Eve honey give Papa some sugar!

Eve: Mmm-Bye! It’s my day off at the Drapery Inspectors, too; so I am off to shop!

Carrin: Ahh! At least she’s happy. And there is just time for an automated shower and shave before the finance guy gets here. So what have I got to grouse about?

* * * *

Carrin: A warm shower always washes away bad thoughts.  Wonderful !  And it should be, as this A.E. Auto-towel with shaving attachments cost me three hundred and thirteen dollars, plus tax. But worth every penny of it!

Carrin: Have I forgotten something? The Avignon Electric finance man will be here in fifteen minutes. But is there anything else?

Carrin: Stop worrying, you hypochondriac!

Door: Mr. Pathis from Avignon Finance is here.

Carrin: Open.

Pathis: A very good day to you, sir.  I don’t think I’ll be overstepping our company’s code to inform you that yours is the nicest interior in this section.

Carrin: Thanks!

Pathis: Now, then, is everything functioning properly? Everything in order?

Carrin: Oh yes. Avignon Electric never goes out of whack!

Pathis: The phone all right? Changes records for the full seventy hours?

Carrin: It certainly does.

Pathis: The Solido-projector all right? Enjoying the programs?

Carrin: Perfect reception. I saw a show last week.

Pathis: How about the kitchen? Auto-cook in order? Recipe-master still knockin’ ’em out?

Carrin: Outta the park!

Pathis: And all the rest?

Carrin: Everything is wonderful. Well, I haven’t had time to unpack everything yet.

Pathis: I’m so glad it all works. We try to satisfy our customers. If a product isn’t right, back it comes, no questions asked.

Carrin: I certainly appreciate it, Mr. Pathis.

Pathis:  I’m proud to say most of the people in this neighborhood buy from
us. We’re solid.

Carrin: Was Mr. Miller a customer of yours?

Pathis: That fellow who killed himself? He was,  matter of fact. That amazed me, sir. Just last month the fellow bought a brand-new Jet-lash, capable of doing three hundred and fifty on a straightaway. Of course, the Jet-lash brought up his debt a little.”

Carrin: Of course.

Pathis: But what did that matter? He had every luxury. And then he went and hung himself.

Carrin: Hung himself?

Pathis: Yes, every modern convenience, and he hung himself with a piece of rope. Probably unbalanced for a long time.

Pathis: But enough of that! Let’s talk about you. Now, then, your account. You owe us one million, eight hundred and three thousand dollars and twenty-nine cents, Mr. Carrin, as of your last purchase. Right?

Carrin: Right.  Here’s my installment.

Pathis: Fine. Now you know, Mr. Carrin, that you won’t live long enough to pay us the full million, eight hundred thousand, don’t you?

Carrin: No, I don’t suppose I will. But I am only thirty-nine, with a full hundred years of life ahead to pay for it, thanks to medical science. But at a salary of thirty-five thousand a year, I still couldn’t pay it all off and have enough to support a family.

Pathis: Of course, we would not want to deprive you of necessities, which in any case is fully protected by the laws we helped pass. To say nothing of the terrific items that are coming out next year.

Carrin: Sure, I know. I want the new items!

Pathis: Well, suppose we make the customary arrangement. Just sign over your son’s earnings for the first thirty years of his adult life, and we can easily arrange credit.

Pathis: I’ll just get the papers out of my briefcase and spread them out. If you’ll just sign here, sir. And here.

Carrin: Well, I’m not sure. I’d like to give the boy a start in life, not saddle him with —

Pathis: But 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 for the years of his childhood!

Carrin: Sure. Only —

Pathis: 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. It is not debt. It’s an investment.

Carrin: That’s true. But —

Pathis:  What’s wrong?

Carrin: Well, I was just wondering. Signing over my son’s earnings–you don’t think I’m getting in a little too deep, do you?

Pathis: Too deep? 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!

Carrin: I guess so, sure I —

Pathis: And after you’re gone, sir, they’ll all belong to your son.

Carrin: That is true. My son will have all the marvelous things that fill the house. And after all, it is only thirty years out of a life expectancy of a hundred and fifty.

Pathis: Excellent! And by the way, has your home got an A. E. Master Operator?

Carrin: It hasn’t.

Pathis: The Master-operator thing was new this year, a stupendous advance in scientific engineering. It was designed to take over all the functions of housecleaning and cooking, without the owner having to lift a finger.

Carrin: I might just wait until I can afford it.

Pathis: But imagine: 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!”

Carrin: How much?

Pathis: It is only five hundred and thirty-five dollars! Please sign here! It will only add one year to your son’s debt.

Carrin: Right’s right, I’ll show you 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,  that will be a time-saver for them!

* * * * *

Eve: Hello, darling!

Carrin: You’re home! Hello, dear!

Eve: Look.

Carrin: A new A.E. Sexitizer-negligee. What a pleasant surprise! It’s lovely, but is that all you bought?

Eve: Yes, I did not want to take too long over the shopping.

Carrin: Great!

Eve: I’m going to dial supper.  Back in a jiffy.

Carrin: Soon she’ll  be able to dial gourmet meals without moving out of the living room.

Carrin: Look who’s here! Hey Billy, how’s  it going, Son?

Billy: All right, I guess.

Carrin: What’s the matter, Son?

Billy: Aw, n’nothin’.

Carrin: Come on, tell Dad what’s the trouble.

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

Carrin: You alternate between wanting to be a Master Repairman and a rocket pilot. You know the repairmen are the elite. It’s their job to fix the automatic repair machines. We couldn’t have a machine fix the machine that fixed the machine. That is where the Master Repairmen come in, and it all hinges on them being terrific.

Billy: Sure, everybody knows that.

Carrin: You are a bright kid, Billy, but do you have an engineering bent?

Billy: I don’t know yet.

Carrin: Let’s just say it’s possible, Son. Anything is possible.

Billy: But is it possible for me?

Carrin: I don’t know yet.

Billy: Well, I don’t want to be a Master Repairman anyway, since your answer means no. I want to be a space pilot.

Eve: A space pilot, Billy? But there aren’t any. Sorry if I intruded on your little chat.

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

Carrin: They’ve been saying that for a hundred years. And they still haven’t gotten around to doing it.

Billy: They will this time.

Eve: Why would you want to go to Mars? There are no pretty girls on Mars.

Billy: I’m not interested in girls. I just want to go to Mars.

Eve: You wouldn’t like it, honey. It’s a nasty old place with no air.

Billy: It’s got some air and they added some. I’d like to go there. I don’t like it here.

Carrin: What’s that? Is there anything you haven’t got? Anything you want?”

Billy: No, sir. I’ve got everything I want.

Carrin: 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.

Billy: Then why didn’t you?

Carrin: 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 —

Eve: Hee, hee, hee.

Carrin: 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: How come I have debts, sir?

Carrin: So you can enjoy and help your family with the things a family needs for civilized living today. They have to be paid for and we all need to chip in. After all, it is customary for a son to take on a part of his parent’s debt, when he comes of age.

Billy: Mm-hmm.

Carrin: Son. 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?”

Billy: Uh, I —

Carrin: 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?

Carrin” 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, my dear boy! Well, what are you thinking?

Billy: I was just wondering how I could go to Mars. With the debt, I mean. I don’t suppose I could get away from that.

Carrin: Of course not.

Billy: Unless I stowed away on a rocket.

Carrin: But you wouldn’t do that. You’d change their trajectory.

Billy: No, of course not. That’s right, too.

Eve : You’ll stay here and marry a very nice girl.

Billy: Sure I will. Sure. I didn’t mean any of that stuff about going to Mars, I really didn’t.

Eve: I’m glad of that.

Billy: Just forget I mentioned it. Mind if I go up to my room?

Carrin: No, go on and enjoy yourself.

Eve: Probably gone to play with his rockets. He’s such a little devil.

* * * * *

[An hour later.]

Carrin: Time to go to work. I’m still on night shift the rest of the month. G’bye, dear.

Eve: Good-bye!

Carrin: The automatic gates recognize me. I’m here to work, automatic washing machine assembly line.

Co-worker: Hey Carrin!

Carrin: Everything all right?

Co-worker: Sure. 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. Just press the button on them and find out if they are all right. They always are.

Carrin: But don’t miss a button, eh? Here goes! See ya tomorrow!

Carrin: That boy of mine! Will he ever grow up and face his responsibilities? The boy’s a born rebel. If anyone gets to Mars, it will be Billy!

Washing Machine: Ready for the wash.

Carrin: Poor old Miller. Always talkin’ about the planets, always kidding about going off somewhere and roughing it.

Washing Machine: 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.]

Washing Machine: Ready for the wash.

Carrin: O.K., I pressed release for you.

Washing Machine: Ready for the wash.

Carrin: Oh, go to packaging! Still, I can’t help thinking it would have been great to be a rocket pilot! Imagine, to push a button and go to Mars!


Based on the short story of the same title appearing in _Galaxy Science Fiction_  in December 1952.

Exhaustive research uncovered no evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.