THE GOOD WORK
THEODORE L. THOMAS
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 buildings.
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 twinkled 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.
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 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. 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 door. 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 die 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 someday. 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 T he 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 bells 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. 1 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 comer 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 coordinating 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 them.
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 in.” 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 building.” “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 soon.” “I certainly will.” There was an exchange of goodbyes, 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.