Simon Grover always felt like a goldfish in a coptercab. The plexiglass bubble afforded full 360-degree vision, but people could also see you from the crowded traffic lanes above a big city.
“Hurry,” said Simon Grover, a small, energetic man with close-set hazel eyes and a stubborn chin.
“I’m hurrying,” the pilot told him with frustrating indifference.
Milton Lesser was a prolific, poly-pseudonymous, poly-genre fiction writer of the mid-20th century, authoring works under the pen names of Stephen Marlowe, Adam Chase, Stephen Wilder (and in at least one ghost-writing effort, Ellery Queen), among others.
This story first appeared in October 1954, and the copy offered here is hosted at Project Gutenberg.
In another few moments he would be safe. He squirmed around and saw another copter rise above the express lane and close the gap between them. It had never been this close before. The aquamarine roof of the Marriage Building loomed ahead, then swelled up at them. The other copter buzzed closer.
“Don’t see any landing space,” the pilot said laconically.
Simon squinted down anxiously. The copters were lined up in neat but crowded rows on the rooftop, with hardly more than walking space between them.
“Hover,” Simon pleaded. “I’ll jump.”
“I could lose my license.”
Simon reached into his pocket and drew out a handful of bills. “This is important to me,” he said.
The pilot pocketed the money, then swooped down toward the roof. Suspended grotesquely eight feet above the aquamarine surface, blades whirling, the coptercab hovered. Simon grunted his thanks and slid back the door. The other copter was fanning air above them and dropping fast when Simon jumped.
His left leg struck the side of a parked cab and threw him off balance. He landed on his shoulder, rolled over and scrambled to his feet. He darted between the rows of copters, thankful for the partial protection their blades offered him. A parabeam zipped down at the long shadow he cast in the late afternoon sun, but in another moment, he had reached the roof entrance to the Marriage Building and flung himself inside.
Breathing hard, he smoothed his rumpled clothing with shaking hands. That had been entirely too close. They thought he was fleeing because he did not want to work for a living. Rot. If he were ever captured, all the romance would go from his life.
He sauntered down the long, pleasant corridor lined with murals of domestic tranquility—family gathered around the dining table, father and son raking leaves in the front yard, graceful elderly couple entertaining children and grandchildren at a merry hearth, young husband and wife going to bed. He was in no hurry now, for the Marriage Building was legal sanctuary.
He passed the long lines of registering Quickies, men filing into one room, women into another. He let his glance rove the line of female Quickies, wondering if his new wife would come from this group. They ranged in age from eighteen to about sixty, he guessed, and naturally they were of all conceivable types. He caught himself in time and stopped looking. It was not considered proper etiquette.
Rounding a turn in the corridor, Simon took the slidestair down one level to where Transients registered and attached himself to the end of a long line of men which was swallowed slowly by a doorway above which was the legend:
Simon checked his counterfeit registration papers and was aware of the old, familiar feeling of uncertainty. His heart bobbed up into his throat and pounded there. His palms were clammy, his fingers wouldn’t keep still. Would the papers pass inspection? He was almost certain they would. But he savored the other possibility although he hated its ultimate consequences. As some people craved security, so others thrived on adventure.
Simon lit a cigarette and waited while the line crawled forward, paralleling a line of female Transients moving through another doorway.
“Sit down, Mr. Grover,” the Counselor said as Simon entered the room. It was a large place with a central aisle and a dozen private cubbies on either side, each one with celotex walls, a desk, two chairs, the latest in marriage literature, and a Counselor.
Simon eased his small frame into a comfortable chair and handed his papers to the Counselor. “I see you have come from Philadelphia,” the man said, smiling not quite professionally—which, Simon knew, was the best of all professional smiles. “Were the accommodations satisfactory? Of course, you don’t have to talk about them.”
“They were fine. Just fine.” Naturally, Simon did not tell the Counselor about his flight from the police.
“How long will you be with us in New York?”
“I figure about three weeks. It depends on business, though. Might be a little longer, I guess.”
“We’ll say three weeks.” The Counselor scrawled something on Simon’s registration form. “Now, Mr. Grover, exactly what kind of wife are you looking for?”
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t given it much thought yet.”
“Splendid,” the Counselor was delighted with the opportunity to expound on his wares. “As you know, we have six basic types.” He removed six colorful folders from six stacks on his desk and handed them to Simon.
“The first,” he went on, “is the newlywed Quickie. The red folder, Mr. Grover. She has just completed her honeymoon, is not pregnant, and has been married for no more than six months.”
Simon examined the folder. On the cover was pictured a young man carrying his bride, complete with bashful smile, across the threshold of their home. There were suggestive dining room, patio and bedroom scenes inside, with appropriate captions.
“The second type,” explained the Counselor, “is the new mother.” The folder showed a charming young woman breast-feeding an infant. The Counselor went on to the other types: the middle mother, a woman of about thirty with two children, one of pre-school age and one in the first three grades; the teener, with from two to five children in their teens or early twenties; the pre-gram, with any number of married children living away from home, but no grandchildren; and the grandmother.
“You understand,” the Counselor said, “we have all types in between as well. These are merely the basics.” He surveyed Simon’s registration papers again. “You’re thirty-five, Mr. Grover. A fine age, I might say. You’d be suited to any type, with the exception of the grandmother.”
“I don’t want the grandmother, anyway,” Simon told him. “You know, I think I’ll take the newlywed this time.”
The Counselor winked knowingly. “Still a lot of get-up-and-go in the old copter, eh?”
“It’s spring,” Simon said.
“Yes. We find it most interesting, that certain types are favored in the various seasons. Newlyweds in the spring, pre-grams in the summer, middle mothers in the fall, new mothers and grandmothers in the winter. Confidentially, Mr. Grover, I’ve always longed to be a Transient myself. But you have to be a Quickie to hold this job, since you’re in one place for such a long period of time. Well, what type of newlywed did you have in mind?”
Simon licked his lips eagerly. In Philadelphia the last time he had come close to learning the parting ritual. But it tripped him up, as usual, and he reached New York one step ahead of the police. “She must be very impressionable,” Simon said, “and very talkative. She must be eager to discuss the theories of multiple marriage—”
“Most newlyweds are,” the Counselor pointed out.
“Well, particularly so. And, of course, she must not be carrying a torch for her honeymoon husband.”
“That’s rare these days, Mr. Grover.”
“It happened to me once, in St. Louis. Had an awful time.”
“Then she probably was a misfit. After all, the institution of multiple marriages is almost eighty years old, and the only form of marriage in the United States today. If we were still in the early pioneering days, you might have cause to worry. Ideas of propinquity still seemed important then, and people were concerned with such things as lasting relationships, though for the life of me I can’t see why.”
“They thought it was more secure,” suggested Simon.
“But it isn’t. In the old days, statistics proved that if a man or woman was saddled with one mate too long, it often led to trouble. The old Et al report of 1979 shocked the world with its figures: ninety five percent of all married men had illicit relations with other women, and the figure was almost as high for women. Relations with unmarried people. It’s rather horrible, isn’t it, Mr. Grover?”
“I suppose so,” said Simon, half-listening. All he needed now was the parting ritual. A nice, impressionable, talkative newlywed girl…
“As usual,” the Counselor continued in a dedicated voice, “man had leaped ahead of his outmoded institutions without realizing it. The notion of marriage based largely on propinquity and permanent relationship just didn’t fit the modern tempo of civilization, where transient workers dart across the continent constantly, always on the move, hardly staying in one place long enough to hang their hats, as the expression goes. Marital infidelity in the old days led to crimes of passion, to divorce, to unsettled families, to children reared in orphanages or by strangers—perfect strangers, mind you—to divorce and re-marriages and so much energy and time and money wasted on second and even third courtships.
“Fortunately, the social institution fits the tempo of the culture today. A Transient—man or woman—gets married and provides for one spouse, one family, but has the pick of the nation to choose from. Even a Quickie like myself is stimulated by constant variety and change. No one is ever bored. You don’t have to see your original mate ever again, as long as you, as a Transient, provide for her. The Quickies, in their turn, will provide for you in all your subsequent marriages. You have the novelty and satisfaction of a true change in environment every time you travel, but you also have the comfort and security of a home.”
“This newlywed girl must also be naive,” said Simon. “That’s important.”
The Counselor made another notation. “You know,” he said, “there is one small school of thought which claims the novelty, the verve and sparkle are lacking because the constant variation is perfectly legal. Perhaps they have a point there: secrecy is stimulating. But they refuse to admit we even provide for that. After all, a Transient assumes the name of his temporary spouse, his Quickie. No one, not even the Quickie, knows his real identity. The Marriage records are available to no one, not even the government, not even the police, thus preserving the sense of—well, freshness for the Transients.
“But I digress. Have you any physical preferences, Mr. Grover?”
“I’m not very tall. Keep her down to my size, please. And I want a pretty wife.”
The Counselor made his final notations, rolled Simon’s registration papers and stuffed them into a pneumotube which he dropped into a wall slot. The tube, Simon knew, was being whisked to Quickie Records, Newlywed Division, where identification of the girl fitting his requirements would be made by the machine records unit of available newlyweds. Last time, in Philadelphia, he had selected a garrulous old grandmother and hated every moment of the two weeks he had spent with her. It had been against the recommendations of the Counselor there, who had claimed the age difference would not make for harmony. The man had been right, but worse yet, the old hag had been too wily to reveal what Simon had to know.
“Congress is considering a law,” said the Counselor as they waited for the return of Simon’s registration papers, “which would permit Quickies and Transients to alternate year after year. It would cause social upheaval at the beginning, but it’s only fair to us Quickies, don’t you think?”
Simon shrugged. The man was starting to bother him. “I’d rather be a Transient,” he said. “I’m for the status quo.”
“But Quickies have no choice in the matter, don’t you see? We have to marry whoever comes along. My last wife—”
“As a Quickie, you’re not supposed to talk about her.”
The Counselor blanched at what had almost amounted to a sin. “Thank you,” he said, and waited in silence for the pneumotube.
Finally, it came, popping out of the wall slot and alighting on the desk. The Counselor removed Simon’s papers and unrolled them, revealing a set of similar papers rolled tightly within. These he opened and spread on the desk, beckoning Simon to come around behind him and take a look.
The first thing Simon saw was the snapshot, in the latest trivision process. The girl looked pretty enough, with a pale, heart-shaped face set off against short-cropped, shining black hair. She had enormous, child-like eyes.
“How do you do?” the picture said. “I am Jane-Marie Paige. I miss you.”
“See,” said the Counselor, “she has a lovely voice.”
Simon nodded, picked up the trivision snapshot and held it under his nose, sniffing delicately. He liked the scent of Jane-Marie’s perfume—not too musky, not too flowery, but that ideal compromise which indicated she would be neither too sultry nor too fragile.
The Counselor wrote in Simon’s name on her papers, printing “approx. 3 wks” under the column for time and handed both rolls to Simon. “Her address is in the second column,” he said. “Visit us again on your next trip to New York, Mr. Grover. And good luck.”
By the time Simon took the tubeway out to the suburban Long Island community in which Jane-Marie Paige lived, the bright spring afternoon was fading into dusk, tinting the western sky with bands of color ranging from deep blue and purple through mauve to delicate, dusty pink. The smell of spring was in the air, but with the coming of night the lingering chill of winter was still apparent. It would be great, coming home again to a new wife, to a drink and an excellent home-cooked dinner, to a cozy fire perhaps—especially when you could have all that and still retain the pulse-quickening feeling of adventure.
Whistling, Simon found Maple Lane and walked by the rows of spherical houses which could rotate with the sun from equinox to solstice and back again. Simon could tell it was a development of newlywed homes by their small size, by the absence of baby carriages and toys on the front lawns, by the small clumps of white birch trees and windows with their curtains drawn.
He found the address listed on Jane-Marie’s registration papers and turned up the walk, noticing the small, ranch-type name post with “Mr. and Mrs. Jane-Marie Paige” on it in big gold letters.
“It’s Simon,” he said as the door slid soundlessly into the curving wall. “I’m home.”
Suddenly, Jane-Marie appeared there in the doorway. She must have been at one of the curtained windows, peeking out at him. There were soft lights behind her and a delicate halo circled her dark hair from the raditiara she wore.
“Simon,” she said, barely above a whisper, a radiant smile on her face. “They called me. Come in, darling.”
But she still barred the doorway. When he came in he came into the arms of his waiting wife, his newlywed wife, his Jane-Marie. “I missed you ever since they sent your picture,” she breathed, while he kissed the lobes of her ears, the tip of her nose, her eyes, her warm, eager lips.
“Jane-Marie,” he said. It was genuinely thrilling to her, he sensed. It was more than that to him. It was—it was illicitly thrilling, worth all the quick exits and close calls with the police.
“You’ll muss me,” Jane-Marie scolded him, drawing away and rearranging her hair under the tiara. “There. Are you hungry?”
“Honey, I’m famished.”
“Well, I’m making no promises. I’m not much of a cook, really. They didn’t tell me how long you were going to stay, but I should improve enough so when the next—”
“Shh. I’ll be here three weeks.”
“Come in, come in.” She took his hand in her own warm one, pressing the door button and dimming the hall light as they walked into the house. “Tell me about yourself, darling. What do you do? How are you going to spend your time in New York? Oh, I’m so excited. There’s so much to talk about, so much to learn about each other. Do you play bridge? There’s a couple down the street, the wife’s a Transient and just got here today, but I know the husband, who likes to play bridge. Do you like music? I’ll turn some on.”
She was talkative, all right. Soon Simon heard the lilting strains of a Strauss waltz. Jane-Marie pirouetted happily about the dining room table in three-quarter time and sat down, motioning Simon to sit near her and not on the other side. As he adjusted his napkin she leaned her head on his shoulder and said, “I like your eyes, darling.”
He smiled. “They’re close-set.”
“They are not. They’re very intelligent looking. I’ll bet you’re an engineer or something. I’ll bet you’re going to help design that new construction project in Brooklyn. Gee, I like your eyes.” She gazed up at them demurely.
The robot server wheeled in the first course along with a frosted bottle of champagne leaning gracefully in a silver chilling urn. Simon popped the cork expertly, filled both glasses and raised his. “To us,” he said.
“To us, darling. Forever and ever three weeks. I hope you like chopped liver salad,” Jane-Marie added nervously. “I had no way of knowing, but from now on you’ll get whatever you like, I promise.”
“It’s delicious,” Simon said, beginning to eat.
Other courses followed. There was jellied consommé, roast, stuffed chicken and sweet potato pudding, a salad which Simon tossed with an enthusiasm and expertness that Jane-Marie said was a joy to behold, dessert of brandied bing cherries, coffee and pie. And a constant stream of chatter from Jane-Marie.
“Well,” said Simon, patting the bulge at his waistline and sliding his belt-clasp an inch or two looser with the comfortable informality only a married man can display (and in his own home, thought Simon). “I must say that was good.”
“I’m so glad you liked it. Do you want to sit around the fire and talk, dear?” She flavored the term of endearment once more. “Dear.”
The robot server had begun to remove the dishes from the table. Simon stood up and was followed by Jane-Marie into the sunken living room, where he began to pile wood and kindling on the andirons in the raised-hearth fireplace. As she bent to watch him, the décolleté hostess gown revealed a breathless amount of lovely white skin. “Maybe we’ll retire after that,” Simon said, trying not to sound the way he felt, which was more than mildly lecherous.
Jane-Marie smiled a secret, small-girl smile and pulled him down on the cushion in front of the hearth, on which a bright fire was now crackling. “It’s so good to have you home, darling, all to myself. Will your work keep you away much? I hope not.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m on vacation.”
“That is nice,” Jane-Marie murmured dreamily. “And flattering, too, because you selected me to share your vacation.”
“Could it be anyone but you?” Simon said. “As if it could be anyone but you.” Which was perfectly, beautifully, delightfully true—for three weeks. “You married rather young, I see.”
Jane-Marie stroked his temples with long fingers. “Oh, now, don’t be so sure,” she smiled. “Maybe I’m older than I look.”
“No. You’re about twenty. I guess you like marriage.”
“I love it. It’s too early to tell, but—well, it agrees with me.”
“Glad of what, darling?”
“That you married early. Come here.”
She came and sat in his lap. He blew in her ears and at the short hairs on the nape of her neck until she laughed. “I love you,” she said. “I love you so.”
He loved her too. It was right. She was the girl he had selected. But a sense of urgency swept over him, not only for the love they would consummate as the night grew longer, but for what he hoped to learn from her so he could have the name as well as the game—as well as that feeling of adventure which sharpened his senses so acutely. He said, “Do you ever think of the times before multiple marriage became the accepted social institution? Do you ever think of how those people must have felt?”
“I knew you were an intellectual!” Jane-Marie cried instead of answering his question. “I just knew it. I could see it in your eyes, darling. Oh, I do love you.”
He kissed her tenderly, then with fire. He could feel the passion mounting between them but tore himself from its grasp. “Don’t you ever think of it?” he asked again.
“Well, I read a book about it once, Murray’s The Decline of Monogamy. They must have felt simply awful, darling. I mean, I love you, but to have to spend all that time, season after season, year after year, with the same person would—would drive you crazy. You’d get to know him so well, everything he did, the way he thought and all. Oh, with you it’s different. I could spend forever with you three weeks, but—”
“No, Honey. I mean the others. The outcasts. Those who carried on adulterous relationships.”
Jane-Marie frowned in thought. He could tell the conversation interested her but thought she would have preferred to drop it. Still, the conversation was flowing more smoothly than he had dared hope, and in the right direction.
“I don’t know,” Jane-Marie finally admitted. “I suppose they were pioneers, sort of. I mean, flaunting social custom the way they did because they were willing to fight for a better way of life.”
“I agree with you,” Simon said. “Sometimes convention restricts you and doesn’t allow you to live the fullest life. You should then flaunt convention by all means, don’t you think?”
“I do. I do.”
He sighed gratefully. The seed had been planted. He now had to cultivate it for three weeks. A word here, a gesture there, a suggestion, twenty-one days of marital bliss, of gaining her confidence, of impressing her with everything he did.
“Well,” he said, “shall we go upstairs?”
He watched the color rise from Jane-Marie’s throat and soon suffuse her face. “I was thinking Mr. and Mrs. Busby might want to play some bridge—”
“There are other nights,” he said. He scattered the embers of the burning logs with the poker and went into the dining room after the bottle of champagne. With Jane-Marie at his side he climbed the stairs.
The shower had stopped. He could hear Jane-Marie humming to herself in a nervous falsetto. He didn’t know whether to get under the covers or not, and finally decided Jane-Marie would be more at ease if he did. He had already combed his hair and brushed his teeth.
At last, she came. She was lovely, his wife, in a daring black negligee. She stood there in it for a long, wonderful moment, then plunged the room into darkness.
You could be a newlywed over and over again, Simon thought happily. You could taste the joys of brand-new parenthood not once but a hundred times. You could see the kids off to school on that memorable first day as often as you liked, see your grandchildren that first glorious time through the glass window also as often as you wished, or taste many times of an old, established relationship which was yet mysteriously new, despite the gray hairs and conditioned familiarity.
It was a full life, but something was lacking. Did it make him a misfit? Probably, but he had his own life to lead, his own fulfillment to achieve, his own strange kinship with the early rebels who had blasted monogamy from the pages of social history.
“You’ll think this is silly,” Jane-Marie whispered in the darkness.
“What’s that, dear? What will I think is silly?”
“What I’m going to ask you.”
“No, I won’t. Honest.”
“Go on, if it will make you happy.” He could sense her presence near him.
“Well, it isn’t that I don’t trust you, but there’s so much of it going on lately that I thought—”
“What did you think?”
“The—the parting ritual. You know what it’s for, darling. A safeguard.”
Simon plunged from zenith to nadir in seconds. He would never spend those three weeks with Jane-Marie. He would be running again, running until he could board the tubeways in anonymity from the basement of a Marriage Building in some other city. But it had never happened so quickly before.
“Can’t it wait for three weeks?” he asked, knowing the request was futile.
“Then it’s hardly a safeguard for me, just for—for the next one. It’s just lately that all those misfits have started…. I guess some people will never be satisfied.”
Her hand touched his hand in darkness. There were finger movements. She began to chant meaningless syllables.
This was it, Simon knew in despair. He could not respond. It was a simple thing, but people were sworn to absolute secrecy. It was changed every few months and he had never been able to learn it.
A sob escaped Jane-Marie’s lips. “Simon,” she gasped. “Simon, you aren’t… you’re not doing…”
“No,” he said wearily. He sat up quickly in the darkness and dressed. He could hear her reaching for the phone. He stood up and went to her, but she turned away.
“Don’t you touch me. Go away, leave me alone. Of all the despicable… and I thought… I almost… Hello, police? This is Mrs. Jane-Marie Paige on Maple Lane. I want to report….”
“Goodbye,” he whispered softly.
“I hate you!”
He left quickly, double-timing down Maple Lane between the rows of spherical houses. He didn’t belong. He was an outlaw, a criminal, a maladjusted misfit—or worse. Some people are never satisfied. The police failed to understand. To them his type was lazy, shiftless. They were drones, parasites who could reap all the advantages of multiple life without working a day. They had no one to support.
But that isn’t it at all, thought Simon as he ran. He could hear the approaching wail of police sirens. He must hurry. Perhaps in Boston he would get the one stroke of luck he needed, if the police didn’t catch him first. It wasn’t that he was lazy and lacked the sense of responsibility which would make him support a family. Everything was too patterned, too set-out-for-you, too prosaic. In his own way he courted danger and was hated for it. He sought the spice of an illicit relationship which he supposed some people always needed.
He could picture pretty Jane-Marie crying out the whole story to the police. “That man—he was a bachelor!”