The Word From Space

A Nebraskan by birth, WRIGHT MORRIS has tired at various times in California, at Wellfleet on Cape Cod, on a mesa north of Gallup, and now resides in Wayne, Pennsylvania. In 1957 he received the National Book Award for his novel, THE FIELD OF VISION.

A Fantasy by WRIGHT MORRIS

WHAT reassured me was how normal everything looked. In the house, as in the yard, as in the memorable scenes of my childhood, a stillness reigned that would be followed by the sound of rain puffing dust in the road. But nothing followed. The stillness reigned, but nothing else. A wind that did not blow — it seemed to rise at my back and go out of the room 1 stood in — made a noise at the window, then scattered the leaves I had piled in the yard. But even that was reassuring. Scattered is how our leaves usually look. They were there, where the wind had blown them, and the rake was there, where I had left it. That becalmed moment, that still point, that sudden dampness on the forehead had just been, as we say, one of those things. Through the window that I faced all seemed right with the world.

I got dressed, then I walked through the house to the carport door, where the cat would be waiting, but pressed against the door was a man who came in like a draft when I yanked it open. A mailman. Not oars, not the one we know, but one of those men whom neither wind nor rain, snow nor sleet, will obstruct in the performance of his duty. A little kink in the Budget might do it, but nothing else. This one looked a little small for the size of the bag he had on his back. But he had a mailman’s friendly expression, the badge and key chain I’ve always envied, along with the hookand-eye shoes a good mailman likes to wear.

“Hi!” he said, “here’s your Xmas seals!” and stuffed a letter full of them into my hand. I didn’t brighten up at that, so he added, “Only twenty-one days till Xmas” (he pronounced it exxmuss), “ain’t that right?”

“I’ve not counted them lately,”I replied, “but it sounds about right.” 1 could see he was one of these friendly types who would talk your leg off if you gave him a chance. “Well, it’s another fine day,” I said, and reached for the mail he had put in my box.

“Just wait’ll you see that mail,” he barked, “and you’ll change your mind.”

He was right. There were three or four pieces of fourth-class mail, an airmail from Chicago with a new penny in the window, and two firstclass appeals for money containing the little books you have to mail back to them.

“You should complain!” he said, although I hadn’t had time to. “All you have to do is get it. I got to carry it around.” He shifted his pack to the other shoulder, aged before my eyes. “Did you see the latest runaround we got from Headquarters? Holy smoke, you should be a mailman!”

“If you’ll excuse me,” I said, “I’m just about to make my coffee.”

“Coffee!” he barked. “You’re making fresh coff-ce?” I started to reply, but he put a finger to his lips, blew on it softly. “You know what I told Headquarters?” he whispered. I didn’t. “I said, how’s about a coff-ee-break for the mailman? All this rain, snow, wind, and sleet talk is o-kay, but how’s about a coffee-break?”

“What did Headquarters say?”

“What did they say? You think they ever say? They don’t say, you just bellyache to ‘em.”

All the guilt feelings I have in not having to be a mailman were on his side. “If you’d like just a little break,” I said, and glanced at my watch. “I make it short in the morning.”

“Just so long as it’s a break,” he said, “you know what I mean?” and stepped into the kitchen, dropped his bag with a thud. Our kitchen is a pleasant sunny room in the morning, full of some things that match, and some things that don’t. One of the things that doesn’t match anything is the cat’s food dish, of green plastic. It doesn’t match, it’s hard to clean, but it’s his dish. The mailman’s eye lit on the dish, and he said, “What’s that?”

“The cat-dish,” I replied.

“The cat’s what?”

“His dish.” He stared at me in the way the cat does when we put down something we eat, but he won’t. “We have a cat,” I said, calmly, “and that’s his dish.”

“A cat-dish,” he replied. “Can you beat it!”

“What’s wrong with a cat-dish?”

“Ho-ho!” he laughed, like one of the seven dwarfs, “a cat-dish. Well, I never —”

“This cat’s no trouble,” I said. “He lives outside. One can of Pet milk lasts him three days.” I paused there, then added, “If we didn’t have a cat, we’d have mice.”

He shrugged. “What’s wrong with mice?”

I turned back to the stove and put on the coffee water. To indicate how I felt I put on less water than usual. “I hope you like it black,” I said, “I have no cream.”

“No cream? Imagine. Well, just so long as it’s hot. What I can’t stand is lukewarm coffee.”

Why didn’t I tell him off? I was bigger than he was. 1 could even write to his Headquarters and complain about him. But I had the feeling — hard to explain — that he had something on me. I heard him pull up a chair to the table, dust the cat hair from the seat, then take the morning paper and slip off the rubber band. Out the corner of my eye I noticed his big feet hung an inch from the floor. He was small, but I don’t mean to say I hadn’t seen almost as small mailmen.

THIS your paper?” he said, opening it up.

“Yup,” I said, pointedly, “but I haven’t had a chance this morning to look at it.”

That didn’t faze him. He flicked a thumb on the tip of his tongue, leaving a spot like you find beneath a bandage, then he left his tongue tip between his lips where it would be handy later. “ ‘All the news that’s fit to print,’ eh?” he said. “How about that?”

He didn’t mean he wanted to know. It was just one of his asides to himself. I glanced at him, and he read the headlines in the lead column:

MAFIA DOMINATES CARTING IN CITY

“Who’s Mafia?” he asked.

“The Mafia,” I said, dusting off what I remembered, “are one of these underworld organizations. They run the gangster world. They got a finger into garbage now, I guess.”

“Can you beat it!” he said. “You call that fit to print?” as if I had just printed it.

“There’s a lot of dough in garbage these days,” I said, “and if there’s dough in it, it’s news. If there’s a lot of dough in it, it’s news fit to print.”

“Well, I never,” he said, and his tongue flicked in and out like a sand viper. “Now what do you think of that?” he said. “Now what do you think of that?”

He wasn’t asking me, really, but since I was curious I asked him. “What do you think of what?”

“A dog,” he said. “A dog in a satellite.”

I leaned over his shoulder to see for myself, and there, sure enough, was a picture of her. Laika, the Russian space dog, on the front page of the Times. The dog was lying in its space compartment, blinking, I suppose, in the light from the flash bulbs. She looked reasonably well pleased.

“That’s news for you,” I said, “but it’s not fit for some people. The SPCA didn’t like it a bit.”

“Who’s the SPCA?”

I’ll admit that surprised me, coming from a mailman. In the line of duty they often have to kick some mutts in the teeth. “It’s a society,” I said, “for the prevention of cruelty to animals,”

“Ho, ho!” he laughed. “You don’t mean it!”

“What’s so funny about it? You’ve certainly heard of a dog’s life?” He had. “Well,” I said, “some dogs lead it.”

“In that case,” he came back, “what’s so cruel about it? No dogcatchers out there in space. I’ll bet most dogs love it. The cruelty would be in bringing ‘em back — don’t you think?”

Putting it to me in the form of a question threw me off. “Faced with the new active leisure,” I said, “a dog needs a man. He misses being maltreated. After all, it’s a profession.”

He let his legs swing beneath the chair as he thought about that. “That coffee ready?”

It was. I poured myself a full cup to make sure I got it, then 1 poured him what was left. There he sat, on the chair I usually sat on, perfectly at home at my table. He held the paper up between us, just the way I do with my wife.

“You bellyache about Headquarters,” I said, “is this what Headquarters is paying you to do?”

He glanced up to see what I meant. Saw it clearly and said, “Yup. I’m here from Headquarters.'’ He said that in the friendliest way possible, but it set me back. What did he mean by Headquarters? Whose Headquarters?

“Hey, you,” he said, “listen to this! Seven billion bucks for an anti-missile missile! Talk about your double talk. How you like that?

I liked it even less than seeing him sitting there on my chair, his elbows on my table, drinking my coffee, and reading it to me.

“Chriminenty!” he yapped. “Would you believe it?”

“Would I believe what?”

“What you call fit to print,” he said, and slapped his hand on the paper, enjoying the racket. Before I could comment he read aloud:

HOPE TO MATCH RUSSIAN MIGHT IN FOUR FIVE YEARS

He lowered the paper and said, “You know, that sounds familiar?”

“I should think it would,” I said, “just more of the same.”

He pushed his mailman’s hat back on his head, showing the ridge it had made in his brow. All the high points of his face were shiny, and it seemed to consist of nothing but high points. Nose, chin, the bumps over his eyes, he looked as polished as the head on a penny. His eyes had been closed; they popped open and he cried, “I got it! I got it! The five-year plan!”

“Okay,” I said, “what’s new about it?”

“They had it,” he said. “Now you got it!”

“Not me,” I replied. “I don’t want it.”

“Ho, ho, ho!” he laughed, his head tipped back, and I almost poured my coffee down his throat.

“I have not got it,” I said. “We all got it. There’s no place in the world that soon won’t have it. We’re all trapped. We all got five-year plans. What’s so funny about it?”

He suddenly stopped laughing, said, “So the world is trapped. What’s a world?”

Sooner or later, in my case usually sooner, that’s my luck. I play the good Samaritan, and I end up with a madman in my house. Through the blinds I gazed at the beautiful morning, at the world where everyone seemed trapped, at the fact that there seemed nowhere in the world much news that was fit to print. The morning was lovely, my heart was sad, and I was trapped with a mad mailman in my kitchen.

APENNY for your thoughts, old sport,” he said, and I must say it surprised me. I mean the way he put it. The feeling I had that he wanted to know.

“When I read the paper,” I said, “or even when I don’t and you read it for me, honest to God if I don’t think I’ll go nuts. Honest to God if I don’t really wonder what the hell to do.” That was my thought, and I could see it impressed him.

“Why you read the dang paper, old sport?”

“It comes every morning,” I replied. He didn’t seem to find that odd. No, not a bit.

“Well,” he said, “it beats all. There must be some good news — why don’t somebody print it?

“Nobody would believe it,” I replied. “If it’s good news it’s propaganda. If it’s so bad you can’t bear it, you know it’s the truth.”

“Holy cow! What a world to live in!”

“You’re telling me?” I said, and wheeled on him, spilling some of my coffee.

“Why you live in it?” he said. Just like that.

“Don’t think,” I said, “if there was any place to go, I wouldn’t go there!” I snapped my fingers, “I’d go there like a shot.”

You know what he said to that? “No kidding?”

“No kidding,” I said, then added, “chum.”

At that point we had a pause of the sort I have described. My forehead was damp, but the room itself seemed cool. I noticed he had gripped the sides of the chair the way a kid does at the dentist, as if the pressure from beneath might pop him out of it. “No kidding, chum,” I said, clearing my throat, then I put in for the humor of it, “you got any suggestions?”

“What about a planet?”

That was more humor than I’d expected.

“Okay,” I said, “what about it?”

He seemed to think that over. From my point of view, rather than his. “Let me tell you, old sport, there’s more planets than you think.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I said, “and I couldn’t care less.”

“What you think of all this crazy talk about saucers, old sport?”

I didn’t like the “old sport,” wherever he got it, but it wasn’t lost on me that he meant it to be friendly.

“I take it you mean flying saucers?” He pumped his head up and down, rocking his hat. It was large for his head and rocked like a teeter-totter on the wings of his ears. “Well,”I said, “frankly it’s kiddie stuff. Wishful thinking for grownups. Escape fiction for wage slaves. In a world where we’re all trapped, it’s a trap door into the attic. Ever notice how much the new worlds look like the old ones?”

“So you don’t buy it?”

“Nope,” I said, “I don’t buy it. Not even on the meter installment plan.”

He drummed his fingernails on the bottom of the chair, making a sound like a cat scratching. “What about it as an idea?” he said. “You know — along the line of science fiction.”

“Okay. What about it?”

“Let’s say you an’ me just pretend,”he said, leaning forward, his legs swinging.

“Pretend what?”

“Let’s pretend,” he said, “we got a little saucer right there in the yard.” When he said “yard,” he wagged a finger toward the back of the house. That was the part I couldn’t see from the kitchen.

My mouth a little dry, I said, “Okay, go on.”

“Let’s pretend it’s a small-size saucer,” he went on, “with just enough room for me an’ you on it. No room for you to take along your wife, your cat, stuff like that. There’s just barely room for you to take along yourself.” He stopped there, and gave me the look Wise Old Owl used to give Br’er Rabbit. Like Br’er Rabbit I just lay quiet, I didn’t give myself away. “Okay, okay,” he said, “so far so good. Now what we got is this saucer out there in the yard, and we got four or five minutes, say we make it five, before we take off.” Saying that he took from his pocket a large stemwind watch on a heavy guard chain. “Five minutes,” he said, his eye on the second hand, “four minutes and lifty-two seconds, four minutes and forty-eight seconds —”

“Hey!” I said. “You counting from now?”

“Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds,” he replied.

“Holy cow!” I said, picking up his lingo, and putting down my coffee cup I ran for the back. I rushed into my study, then just stood there a moment, looking around. This was a game, but like any game, you had to play it seriously. What the devil should I take? I looked around wildly at what I possessed. Books mostly, a few records, machines that made one noise or another, a typewriter, photographs of places and friends.

“Four minutes flat!” I heard him yell, and I lunged for the bookcase, snatched Moby Dick. It felt heavy, I swapped it for Shakespeare in a thin paper edition. Did I want Shakespeare with me in space? Was I trapped in clichés? Was it Dante or Huck Finn I should have at my side on my spatial desert island? Or should it be Doublccrostics, Yoga exercises, or H, P. Lovecraft? From the top of my desk I grabbed the snapshot, no longer candid, of house, cat, and wife; from the drawer the gift pen said to be good for umpteen thousand words. Okay, I would write them. But what would I do with them?

“Three minutes and twenty-seven seconds,” he called. He sounded calm. I wanted to yell back at him, but there wasn’t time. From a lower drawer, clogged with twenty years of new and foolproof cigarette filters, I selected a pocket microscope, in which I had often seen my own eyelashes, and a slide rule no bigger than a package of gum, made in Japan. In space — where else? — I would finally master it. In the last analysis one can always calculate.

“Two minutes twenty-one seconds,” he droned, as time runs out for a man on the gallows. In something of a panic I ran into the bathroom — life began, after all, in the bathroom — and grabbed the newest of the two toothbrushes, the tube of chlorophyll paste, but with something like elation I left the razor in its rack on the wall. At long last I would grow, and need, that beard. Through it would whistle the fumeless zephyrs of outer space. And aspirin! It made me faint to think I had almost overlooked it. Were there headaches in space? Feeling one coming on, I tapped two out of the bottle, swallowed them.

“One minute forty-five seconds, old sport!”

In the bedroom, the corner closet, back on the shelf with the carton of fuses, I raised a pillow and gazed, wide-eyed, at the cache. Old Bushmills. Brought in tax-free from Shannon, the gift of an old friend. Saved, as I had told him, as I had told myself, as I had told everybody, for what I called a special occasion. Wasn’t this it? Perhaps the last speeial occasion of my life on earth? I look one bottle from the shelf, and slipped it, through an opening in my shirt, into my sleeve. A little heavy at the start, but once we had nipped it, we could jettison the bottle. It would follow us, like a kite’s tail, through space. A fitting reminder, in its fashion, of our life on earth.

“Fifty-seven seconds to go,” cried the voice.

From a drawer smelling of moth balls I yanked a sweater, then dashed back into the study to take a leather-covered pipe, never smoked. I scooped the pouch full of the tobacco that scented the house like a glowing fruit cake, then turned for a last look around. In what might have been the voice of a train caller he said, “Last call!”

Why? Can you tell me why he put it like that? Last call. Did he mean for this world — or the next one? As a man from Space, what new world did he have in mind? There was no news fit to print in this one, but some of the unprintable news was wine. I was, in fact, making news, sad as it seemed, at that very moment. If Life and Time knew about it they would be out there in the yard, waiting for me to take off. Along with other news considered fit to print, tomorrow morning’s Times would feature mine:

LOCAL MAN LEAVES THIS WORLD FOR NEW PLANET

Would the news, on that planet, be fit to print?

THE closing of a door, the one to the carport, stirred the air throughout the house, and a last faint puff of it seemed cool on my damp forehead. What had happened? Was it pain I felt, or relief?

Wait! ” I yelled, and started to run, but the pocket of my coat caught on the doorknob. It swung me around, and I had to take the coat off to get free. “ Wait!” I hollered, and ran through the house to the carport door, yanking it open just as the leaves, in the yard at the back, shot up the way they do from a roaring fire, and in the tops of the trees I heard the whirring of the grackles taking flight. What a sound it was! Like the wind rippling the cloth of a sail. I didn’t move from the door, nor lift my eyes to look at the sky, nor did I need to be told that I had missed the scoop of the year. I came back to the kitchen, where I found a small corner of the paper held down by a saucer. It was the left-hand corner, that declared: “All the News That’s Fit to Print. Just below it, in a clear, round hand:

P.S. Hope you don’t, mind my swiping your paper. Nothing fit to print on the front ol it at all, but holy cow, you ever look inside? Three-turret Microscope, $4.95! Alligator Space Shoes, $8.49! Hold on till I get me a bigger saucer, then we’ll clean up!

The cat came out from where he had been hiding, sniffed around the chair where he had been sitting, and I poured what was left of my coffec back into the pot. While it was heating up I heard some of the grackles come back to our trees. Our regular mailman, who is not so big, but not so small as some I have seen, came up the drive and stuffed the mailbox full of fourth-class mail and Christmas seals.

“Another fine day!” he said, seeing me, and I said it sure was.