If you're human, you can't keep a thing around the house.
You're always losing things and never finding them and you go charging through the place, yelling, cross-examining, blaming.
That's the way it is in all families.
Just one warning---don't try to figure out where all those things have gone or who might have taken them. If you have any notion of investigating, forget it. You'll be happier! I'll tell you how it was with me.
I'd bought the sheet of stamps on my way home from the office so I could mail out the cheques for the monthly bills. But
I'd just sat down to write the cheques when Marge and Lewis
Shaw dropped over. I don't care much for Lewis and he barely tolerates me. But Marge and Helen are good friends, and they got to talking, and the Shaws stayed all evening.
Lewis told me about the work he was doing at his research laboratory out at the edge of town. I tried to switch him off to something else, but he kept right on. I suppose he's so interested in his work that he figures everyone else must be. But I don't know a thing about electronics and I can't tell a microgauge from a microscope.
It was a fairly dismal evening and the worst of it was that I couldn't say so. Helen would have jumped all over me for being antisocial.
So, the next evening after dinner, I went into the den to write the cheques and, of course, the stamps were gone.
I had left the sheet on top of the desk and now the desk was bare except for one of the Bildo-Bloeks that young Bill had outgrown several years before, but which still turn up every now and then in the most unlikely places.
I looked around the room. Just in case they might have blown off the desk, I got down on my hands and knees and searched under everything. There was no sign of the stamps.
I went into the living room, where Helen was curled up in a chair, watching television.
"I haven't seen them, Joe," she said. "They must be where you left them."
It was exactly the kind of answer I should have expected.
"Bill might know," I said.
"He's scarcely been in the house all day. When he does show up, you've got to speak to him." "What's the matter now?"
"It's this trading business. He traded off that new belt we got him for a pair of spurs."
"I can't see anything wrong in that. When I was a kid .... "
"It's not just the belt," she said. "He's traded everything.
And the worst of it is that he always seems to get the best of it."
"The kid's smart."
"If you take that attitude, Joe .... "
"It's not my attitude," I said. "It's the attitude of the whole business world. When Bill grows up .... "
"When he grows up, he'll be in prison. Why, the way he trades, you'd swear he was training to be a con man !" "All right, I'll talk to him."
I went back into the den because the atmosphere wasn't exactly as friendly as it might have been and, anyhow, I had to
send out those cheques, stamps or no stamps.
I got the pile of bills and the cheque-book and the fountain pen out of the drawer. I reached out and picked up the Bildo-Block to put it to one side, so I'd have a good, clear space to work on. But the moment I picked it up, I knew that this thing was no Bildo-Block.
It was the fight size and weight and was black and felt like plastic, except that it was slicker than any plastic I had ever felt.
It felt as if it had oil on it, only it didn't.
I set it down in front of me and pulled the desk lamp closer.
But there wasn't much to see. It still looked like one of the Bildo-Blocks.
Turning it around, I tried to make out what it was. On the second turn, I saw the faint oblong depression along one side of it--a very shallow depression, almost like a scratch.
I looked at it a little closer and could see that the depression was machined and that within it was a faint red line. I could have sworn the red line flickered just a little. I held it there, ' studying it, and could detect no further flicker. Either the red had faded or I had been seeing things to start with, for after a few seconds I couldn't be sure there was any line at all.
I figured it must have been something Bill had picked up or traded for. The kid is more than half pack-rat, but there's nothing wrong with that, nor with the trading, either, for all that Helen says. It's just the first signs of good business sense.
I put the block over to one side of the desk and went on with the cheques. The next day, during lunch hour, I bought some more stamps so I could mail them. And off and on, all day, I wondered what could have happened to that sheet of stamps.
I didn't think at all about the block that had the oily feel.
Possibly I would have forgotten it entirely, except that when I got home, the fountain pen was missing.
I went into the den to get the pen and there the pen was, lying on top of the desk where I'd left it the night before. Not that I remembered leaving it there. But when I saw it there, I remembered having forgotten to put it back into the drawer.
I picked it up. It wasn't any pen. It felt like a cylinder of cork, but much too heavy to be any kind of cork. Except that it was heavier and smaller, it felt something--somehow~like a fly rod.
Thinking of how a fly rod felt, I gave my hand a twitch, the way you do to cast a line, and suddenly it seemed to be, in fact, a fly rod. It apparently had been telescoped and now it came untelescoped and lengthened out into what might have been a rod. But the funny thing about it was that it went out only about four feet and then disappeared into thin air.
Instinctively, I brought it up and back to free the tip from wherever it might be. I felt the slack take up against a sudden weight and I knew I had something on the other end of it. Just like a fish feels, only it wasn't fighting.
Then, as quickly as it happened, it unhappened. I felt the tension snap off and the weight at the other end was gone and the rod had telescoped again and I held in my hand the thing that looked like a fountain pen.
I laid it down carefully on the desk, being very certain to make no more casting motions, and it wasn't until then that I saw my hand was shaking.
I sat down, goggling at the thing that looked like the missing fountain pen and the other thing that looked like a Bildo-Block.
And it was then, while I was looking at the two of them, that I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the little white dot in the centre of the desk.
It was on the exact spot where the bogus pen had lain and more than likely, I imagined, the exact spot where I'd found the Bildo-Block the night before. It was about a quarter of an inch in diameter and it looked like ivory.
I put out my thumb and rubbed it vigorously, but the dot would not rub off. I closed my eyes so the dot would have a chance to go away, and then opened them again, real quick, to surprise it ff it hadn't. It still was there.
I bent over the desk to examine it. I could see it was inlaid in the wood, and an excellent job of inlaying, too. I couldn't find even the faintest line of division between the wood and the dot.
It hadn't been there before; I was sure of that. If it had been, I would have noticed it. What's more, Helen would have noticed it, for she's hell on dirt and forever after things with a dusting cloth. And to cinch the fact that it had not been there
And no one sold a thing that looked like a fountain pen but could become a fly rod, the business end of which disappeared and hooked a thing you couldn't even see--and which, the next time, might bring in whatever it had caught instead of losing it.
Helen called to me from the living room. "Joe."
"Yeah. What is it ?"
"Did you talk to Bill?"
"Bill? About what ?"
"About the trading."
"No. I guess I forgot."
"Well, you'll have to. lie's at it again. He traded Jimmy out of that new bicycle. Gave him a lot of junk. I made him give back the bicycle.
"I'll have a talk with him," I promised again.
But I'm afraid I wasn't paying as close attention to the ethics of the situation as I should have been..
You couldn't keep a thing around the house. You were always losing this or that. You knew just where you'd put it and you were sure it was there and then, when you went to look for it, it had disappeared.
It was happening everywhere--things being lost and never turning up.
But other things weren't left in their places--at least not that you heard about.
Although maybe there had been times when things had been left that a man might pick up and examine and not know what they were and puzzle over, then toss in a comer somewhere and forget.
Maybe, I thought, the junkyards of the world were loaded with outlandish blocks and crazy fishing rods.
I got up and went into the living-room, where Helen had turned on the television set.
She must have seen that something had me upset, because she asked, "What's the matter now?" "I can't find the fountain-pen."
She laughed at me. "Honestly, Joe, you're the limit. You're always losing things."
That night, I lay awake after Helen went to sleep and all I coul4 think about was the dot upon the desk. A dot, perhaps, that said: Put it right here, pardner, and we will make a swop.
And, thinking of it, I wondered what would happen if someone moved the desk.
I lay there for a long time, trying not to worry, trying to tell myself it didn't matter, that I was insane to think what I was thinking.
But I couldn't get it out of my mind.
So I finally got up and sneaked out of the bedroom and, feeling like a thief in my own house, headed for the den.
I closed the door, turned on the desk lamp and took a quick look to see if the dot was still there. It was.
I opened the desk drawer and hunted for a pencil and couldn't find one, but I finally found one of Bill's crayons. I got down on my knees and carefullymarked the floor around the desk legs, so that, if the desk were moved, I could put it back again.
Then, pretending I had no particular purpose for doing it, I laid the crayon precisely on the dot.
In the morning, I sneaked a look into the den and the crayon was still there. I went to work a little easier in my mind, for by then rd managed to convince myself that it was all imagination.
But that evening, after dinner, I went back into the den and the crayon was gone.
In its place was a triangular contraption with what appeared to be lenses set in each angle, and with a framework of some sort of metal, holding in place what apparently was a suction cup in the centre of the triangle.
While I was looking at it, Helen came to the door. "Marge and I are going to see a movie," she said. "Why don't you go over and have a beer with Lewis ?"
"With that stuffed shirt ?"
"What's the matter with Lewis ?"
"Nothing, I guess." I didn't feel up to a family row right then.
"What's that you've got ?" she asked.
"I don't know. Just something I found."
"We.ll, don't you start bringing home all sorts of junk, the way Bill does. One of you is enough to clutter up the house."
I sat there, looking at the triangle, and the only thing I could figure out was that it might be a pair of glasses. The suction cup in the centre might hold it on the wearer's face and, while that might seem a funny way to wear a pair of glasses, it made sense when you thought about it. But if that were true, it meant that the wearer had three eyes, set in a triangle in his face.
I sat around for quite a while after Helen left, doing a lot of thinking. And what I was thinking was that even ifI didn't care too much about Lewis, he was the only man I knew who might be able to help me out.
So I put the bogus fountain-pen and the three-eyed glasses in the drawer and put the counterfeit Bildo-Block in my pocket and went across the street.
Lewis had a bunch of blueprints spread out on the kitchen table, and he started to explain them to me. I did the best I could to act as if I understood them. Actually, I didn't know head nor tail of it.
Finally, I was able to get a word in edgeways and I pulled the block out of my pocket and put it on the table. "what is that ?" I asked.
I expected him to say right off it was just a child's block. But he didn't. There must have been something about it to tip him off that it wasn't just a simple block. That comes, of course, of having a technical education.
Lewis picked the block up and turned it around in his fingers.
"What's it made of?" he asked me, sounding excited.
I shook my head. "I don't know what it is or what it's made of or anything about it. I just found it."
"This is something I've never seen before." Then he spotted the depression in one side of it and I could see I had him hooked. "Let me take it down to the shop. We'll see what we can learn."
I knew what he was after, of course. If the block was something new, he wanted a chance to go over it--but that didn't bother me any. I had a hunch he wouldn't find out too much about it.
We had a couple more beers and I went home. I hunted up an old pair of spectacles and put them on the desk right over the dot.
I was listening to the news when Helen came in. She said she was glad I'd spent the evening with Lewis, that I should try to get to know him better and that, once I got to know him better,
I might like him. She said, since she and Marge were such good friends, it was a shame Lewis and I didn't hit it off.
"Maybe we will," I said and let it go at that.
The next afternoon, Lewis called me at the office.
"Where'd you get that thing?" he asked.
"Found it," I said.
"Have any idea what it is ?"
"Nope," I told him cheerfully. "That's why I gave it to you."
"It's powered in some way and it's meant to measure something. That depression in the side must be a gauge. Colour seems to be used as an indicator. At any rate, the colour line in the depression keeps changing all the time. Not much, but enough so you can say there's some change."
"Next thing is to find out what it's measuring."
"Joe, do you know where you can get another of them?"
"No, I don't."
"It's this way," he said. "We'd like to get into this one, to see what makes it tick, but we can't find any way to open it. We oould break into it, probably, but we're afraid to do that. We might damage it. Or it might explode. If we had another ....""Sorry, Lewis. I don't know where to get another."
He had to let it go at that.
I went home that evening grinning to myself, thinking about
Lewis. The guy was fit to be tied. He wouldn't sleep until he found out what the thing was, now that he'd started on it. It probably would keep him out of my hair for a week or so.
I went into the den. The glasses still were on the desk. I stood there for a moment, looking at them, wondering what was wrong. Then I saw that the lenses had a pinkish shade.
I picked them up, noticing that the lenses had been replaced by the kind in the triangular pair I had found there the night before.
Just then, Helen came into the room and I could tell, even before she spoke, that she had been waiting for me.
"Joe Adams," she demanded, "what have you been up to ?"
"Not a thing," I told her.
"Marge says you got Lewis all upset."
"It doesn't take a lot to upset him."
"There's something going on," she insisted, "and I want to know what it is."
I knew I was licked. "I've been trading."
"Trading! After all I've said about Bill?'
"But this is different."
"Trading is trading," she said flatly.
Bill came in the front door, but he must have heard his mother say "trading", for he ducked out again. I yelled for him to come back.
"I want both of you to sit down and listen to me," I said.
"You can ask questions and offer suggestions and give me hell after I'm through."
So we sat down, all three of us, and had a family pow-wow.
It took quite a bit to make Helen believe what I had to tell, but I pointed out the dot in the desk and showed them the triangular glasses and the pair of glasses that had been refitted with the pink lenses and sent back to me. By that time, she was ready to admit there was something going on. Even so, she was fairly well burned up at me for marking up the floor around the desk legs.
I didn't show either her or Bill the pen that was a fishing-rod, for I was scared of that. Flourish it around a bit and there was no telling what would happen.
Bill was interested and excited, of course. This was trading, which was right down his alley.
I cautioned both of them not to say a word about it. Bill wouldn't, for he was hell on secrets and special codes. But bright and early in the morning, Helen would probably swear
Marge to secrecy, then tell her all about it and there wasn't a thing that I could do or say to stop her.
Bill wanted to put the pink-lensed spectacles on right away, to see how they were different from any other kind. I wouldn't let him. I wanted to put those specs on myself, but I was afraid to, if you want to know the truth.
When Helen went out to the kitchen to get dinner, Bill and I held a strategy session. For a ten-year-old, Bill had a lot of good ideas. We agreed that we ought to get some system into the trading, because, as Bill pointed out, the idea of swopping sight unseen was a risky sort of business. A fellow ought to have some say in what he was getting in return.
But to arrive at an understanding with whoever we were trading with meant that we'd have to set up some sort of communication system. And how do you communicate with someone you don't know the first thing about, except that perhaps it has three eyes ?
Then Bill hit upon what seemed a right idea. What we needed, he said, was a catalogue. If you were going to trade with someone, the logical first step would be to let them know what you had to trade.
To be worth anything in such a circumstance, it would have to be an illustrated catalogue. And even then it might be worthless, for how could we be sure that the Trader on the other side of the desk would know what a picture was ? Maybe he'd never seen a picture before. Maybe he saw differently--not so much physically, although that was possible, too, but from a different viewpoint and with totally alien concepts.
But it was the only thing we had to go on, so we settled down to work up a catalogue. Bill thought we should draw one, but neither of us was any good at drawing. I suggested illustrations from magazines. But that wasn't too hot an idea, either, for pictures of items in the magazine ads are usually all prettied up, designed to catch the eye.
Then Bill had a top-notch idea. "You know that kid dictionary Aunt Ethel gave me ? Why don't we send that to them? It's got a lot of pictures and not much reading in it, and that's important. The reading might confuse them."
So we went into his room and started looking through all the junk he had, searching for the dictionary. But we ran across one of the old ABC books he'd had when he was just a toddler and decided it was even better than the dictionary. It had good clear pictures and almost no reading at all. You know the kind of book I mean--A for apple, B for ball and so forth.
We took the book into the den and put it on the desk, centring it on the dot, then went out to dinner.
In the morning the book had disappeared and that was a little odd. Up until then, nothing had disappeared from the desk until late in the day.
Early that afternoon, Lewis called me up. 'Tin coming down to see you, Joe. Is there a bar handy where the two of us can be alone ?"
I told him there was one only a block from me and said I'd meet him there.
I got a few things cleared away, then left the office, figuring I'd go over to the bar and have a quick one before Lewis showed up.
I don't know how he did it, but he was there ahead of me, back in a comer booth. He must have broken every traffic regulation on the books.
He had a couple of drinks waiting for us and was all huddled over, like a conspirator. He was a bit out of breath, as he had every right to be.
"Marge told me," he said.
"I suspected she would."
"There could be a mint in it, Joe !"
"That's what I thought, too. That's why I'm willing to give you ten per cent .... "
"Now look here," squawked Lewis. "You can't pull a deal like that. I wouldn't touch it for less than fifty."
'Tin letting you in on it," I said, "because you're a neighbout. I don't know beans about this technical business. I'm getting stuff I don't understand and I need some help to find out what it is, but I can always go to someone else .... "
It took us three drinks to get the details settled--35 per cent for him, 65 for me.
"Now that that's settled," I said, "suppose you tell me what you found."
"That block I gave you. You wouldn't have tom down here and had the drinks all set up and waiting if you hadn't found something."
"Well, as a matter of fact .... "
"Now just a minute," I warned him. "We're going to put this in the contract--any failure to provide full and complete analysis .... "
"What contract ?"
"We're going to have a contract drawn up, so either of us can sue the other within an inch of his life for breaking it."
Which is a hell of a way to start out a business venture, but it's the only way to handle a slippery little skate like Lewis.
So he told me what he'd found. "It's an emotions gauge.
That's awkward terminology, I know, but it's the best I can think of."
"What does it do ?"
"It tells how happy you are or how sad or how much you hate someone."
"Oh, great," I said, disappointed. "What good is a thing like that ? I don't need a gauge to tell me if I'm sore or glad or anything."
He waxed practically eloquent. "Don't you see what an instrument like that would mean to psychiatrists ? It would tell more about patients than they'd ever be willing to tell about themselves. It could be used in mental institutions and it might be important in gauging reactions for the entertainment business, politics, law-enforcement and Lord knows what else."
' "No kidding! Then let's start marketing!"
"The only thing is .... "
"We can't manufacture them," he said frustratedly. "We haven't got the materials and we don't know how they're made.
You'll have to trade for them."
"I can't. Not right away, that is. First I've got to be able to make the Traders understand what I want, and then I'll have to find out what they're willing to trade them for."
"You have some other stuff?"
"A few things."
"You better turn them over to me."
"Some that could be dangerous. Anyhow, it all belongs to me. I'll give you what I want, when I want and .... "
We were off again.
We finally wound up by adjourning to an attorney's office.
We wrote up a contract that is probably one of the legal curiosities of all time.
I'm convinced the attorney thought, and still thinks, both of us are crazy, but that's the least of my worries now.
The contract said I was to turn over to Lewis, for his determination of its technical and merchandisable nature, at least 90 per cent of certain items, the source of which I alone controlled, and with the further understanding that said source was to remain at all times under my exclusive control. The other 10 per cent might, without prejudice, be withheld from his examination, with the party of the first part having sole authority to make determination of which items should constitute the withheld 10 per cent.
Upon the 90 per cent of the items supplied him, the party of the second part was to make a detailed analysis, in writing, accompanied by such explanatory material as was necessary to the complete understanding of the party of the first part, within no more than three months after receipt, at the end of which time the items reverted solely to the ownership of the party of the first part. Except that such period of examination and determination might be extended, under a mutual agreement made in writing, for any stated time.
Under no circumstances should the party of the second part conceal from the party of the first part any findings he might have made upon any of the items covered by the agreement, and that such concealment, should it occur, should be considered sufficient cause for action for the recovery of damages. That under certain conditions where some of the items might be found to be manufacturable, they could be manufactured under the terms of clauses A, B and C, section XII of this agreement.
Provisions for a sales organization to market any of said items shall be set up and made a part of this agreement. That any proceeds from such sales shall be divided as follows: 65 per cent to the party of the first part (me, in case you've gotten lost, which is understandable), and 35 per cent to the party of the second part (Lewis); costs to be apportioned accordingly.
There were a lot more details, of course, but that gives you an idea.
We got home from the attorney's office, without either of us knifing the other, and found Marge over at my place. Lewis went in with me to have a look at the desk.
Apparently the Trader had received the ABC book all right and had been able to understand why it was sent, for there, lying on the desk, was a picture cut out of the book. Well, not cut out, exactly--it looked more as though it had been burned out.
The picture on the desk was Z for zebra.
Lewis stared worriedly at it. "Now we're really in a fix."
"Yeah," I admitted. "I don't know what the market price is, but they can't be cheap."
"Figure it out---expedition, safari, cages, ship, rail, fodder, keeper. You think we can switch him to something else ?" "I don't see how. He's put in his order."
Bill came wandering in and wanted to know what was up.
When I glumly told him, he said cheerfully, "Aw, that's the whole trick in trading, Pop. If you got a bum jack-knife you want to trade, you unload it on somebody who doesn't know what a good knife is like."
Lewis didn't get it, but I did. "That's right! He doesn't know a zebra is an animal, or, if he does, how big it is !"
"Sure," Bill said confidently. "All he saw was a picture."
It was five o'clock then, but the three of us went uptown and shopped. Bill found a cheap bracelet charm about the size of the drawing in the book. When it comes to junk like that, my kid knows just where it's sold and how much it costs. I considered making him a junior partner in charges of such emergencies, with about I0 per cent share or so--out of Lewis's 35 per cent, of course--but I was sure Lewis wouldn't hold still for that. I decided instead to give Bill a dollar a week allowance, said compensation to commence immediately upon our showing a profit.
Well, we had Z for zebra--provided the Trader was satisfied with a little piece of costume jewellery. It was lucky, I thought, that it hadn't been Z for zephyr.
The rest of the alphabet was easy, yet I couldn't help but kick myseff over all the time we were wasting. Of all the unworthy catalogues we might have sent, that ABC book was the worst.
But until the Trader had run through the whole list, I was afraid to send another for fear of confusing him.
So I sent him an apple and a ball and a small doll for a girl and toy cat and toy dog, and so on, and then I lay awake nights wondering what the Trader would make of them. I could picture him trying to learn the use of a rubber doll or cat.
I'd given Lewis the two pairs of glasses, but had held back the fountain-pen fishing-rod, for I was still scared of that one. He had turned over the emotion gauge to a psychiatrist to try out in his practice as a sort of field test.
Marge and Helen, knowing that Lewis and I had entered into some kind of partnership, were practically inseparable now.
Helen kept telling me how glad she was that I had finally recognized what a sterling fellow Lewis was. I suppose Lewis heard the same thing about me from Marge.
Bill went around practically busting to do some bragging.
But Bill is a great little businessman and he kept his mouth shut.
I told him about the allowance, of course.
Lewis was all for trying to ask the Trader for a few more of the emotion gauges. He had a draughtsman at the plant draw up a picture of the gauge and he wanted me to send it through to indicate that we were interested in it.
But I told him not to try to rush things. While the emotion gauge might be a good deal, we should sample what the Trader had to offer before we made up our minds.
The Trader, apparently certain now that someone was cooperating with him, had dropped his once-a-day trade schedule' and was open for business around the clock. After he had run through the list in the ABC book, he sent back a couple of blank pages from the book with very crude drawings on them-drawings that looked as if they had been made with crumbly charcoal. Lewis drew a series of pictures, showing how a pencil worked, and we sent the Trader a ream of paper and a gross of sharpened pencils, then sat back to wait.
We waited a week and were getting sort of edgy, when back came the entire ream of paper, with each sheet covered on both sides with all kinds of drawings. So we sent him a mail-order catalogue, figuring that would hold him for a while, and settled down to try to puzzle out the drawings he had made.
There wasn't a single thing that made any sense at all--not even to Lewis. He'd study some of the drawings, then paced up and down the room, pulling his hair and twitching his ears.
Then he'd study the drawings some more.
To me, it all looked plain Rube Goldbergish.
Finally, we figured we might as well forget about the catalogue idea, for the time being at least, and we started feeding all sorts of stuff through the desk--scissors, dishes, shoes, jackknives, mucilage, cigars, paper clips, erasers, spoons--almost anything that was handy. It wasn't the scientific way, I know, but we didn't have the time to get very methodical about it and, until we had a chance to work out a more sensible programme, we figured we might as well try the shotgun method.
And the Trader started shooting things back at us. We'd sit for hours and feed stuff through to him and then he'd shoot stuff back at us and we had the damnedest pile of junk heaped all over the place you ever laid eyes on.
We rigged up a movie camera and took a lot of film of the spot on the desk where the exchange was going on. We spent a lot of time viewing that film, slowing it down and even stopping it, but it didn't tell us anything at all. When the stuffdisappeared or appeared, it just disappeared or appeared. One frame it would be there, the next frame it would be gone.
Lewis cancelled all his other work and used the lab for nothing but trying to puzzle out the gadgets that we got. Most of them we couldn't crack at all. I imagine they were useful in some way, but we never managed to learn how.
There was the perfume bottle, for example. That is what we called it, anyhow. But there was a suspicion in our minds that the perfume was simply a secondary effect, that the so-called bottle was designed for some other purpose entirely.
Lewis and his boys were studying it down at the lab, trying to make out some rhyme or reason for it, and somehow they turned it on. They worked for three days, the last two in gas masks, trying to turn it off again. When the smell got so bad that people began calling the police, we took the contraption out into the country and buried it. Within a few days, all the vegetation in the area was dead. All the rest of the summer, the boys from the agricultural department at the university ran around, practically frothing at the mouth trying to find the cause.
There was the thing that might have been a clock of some sort, although it might just as easily have been something else.
If it was a clock, the Trader had a time system that would drive you nuts, for it would measure the minutes or hours or whatever they were like lightning for a while, then barely move for an entire day.
Andthere was the one you'd point at something and press a certain spot on it--not a button or a knob or anything as crass and mechanical as that, just a certain spot--and there'd be just a big blank spot in the landscape. But when you stopped pressing, the landscape would come back again, unchanged.
We filed it away in the darkest corner of the laboratory safe, with a big red tag on it marked: Dangerous! Don't Monkey with This/
But most of the items we just drew blanks on. And it kept coming all the time. I piled the garage full of it and started dumping it in the basement. Some of it I was scared of and hauled out to the dump.
In the meantime, Lewis was having trouble with the emotion gauge. "It works," he said. "The psychiatrist I gave it to to try out is enthusiastic about it. But it seems almost impossible to get it on the market."
"ff it works," I objected, handing him a can of beer, "it ought to sell."
"In any other field, it might, but you don't handle merchandise that way in the medical field. Before you can put something on the market, you have to have it nailed down with blueprints and theory and field tests and such. And we can't.
We don't know how it works. We don't know why it works.
Until we do, no reputable medical supply house will take it on, no approved medical journal will advertise it, no practitioner will use it."
"Then I guess it's out." I felt fairly blue about it, because it was the only thing we had that we knew how to use.
Lewis nodded and drank his beer and was glummer than ever.
Looking back on it, it's funny how we found the gadget that made us all the money. Actually, it wasn't Lewis but Helen who found it.
Helen is a good housewife. She's always going after things with the vacuum and the dustcloth and she washes the woodwork so often and so furiously that we have to paint it every year.
One night, we were sitting in the living-room, watching television.
"Joe," she asked me, "did you dust the den 7"
"Dust the den7 What would I want to do that for?"
"Well, someone did. Maybe it was Bill."
"Bill wouldn't be caught dead with a dustdoth in his mitt."
"I can't understand it, Joe," she said. "I went in there to dust it and it was absolutely dean. Everything just shone."
Sgt. Friday was trying to get the facts out of someone and his sidekick was complaining about some relatives that had come to visit and I didn't pay much attention at the time.
But the next day, I got to thinking about it and I couldn't get it off my mind. I certainly hadn't dusted the den and it was a cinch Bill hadn't, yet someone had if Helen was ready to admit it was clean.
So, that evening, I went out into the street with a pail and shovelled up a pailful of dirt and brought it in the house.
Helen caught me as I was coming in the door. "What do you think you're doing with that ?"
"Experimenting," I told her.
"Do it in the garage."
"It isn't possible," I argued. "I have to find out who's been dusting the den."
I knew that, if my hunch failed, I'd have alot to answer for when she followed me and stood in the doorway, ready to pounce.
There was a bunch of junk from the Trader standing on the desk and a lot more of it in one corner. I cleared off the desk and that was when Bill came in.
"What you doing, Dad ?" he asked.
"Your father's gone insane," Helen explained quietly.
They stood there, watching me, while I took a handful of dirt and sprinkled it on the desk top.
It stayed there for just an instant--and then it was gone. The top of the desk was spotless.
"Bill," I said, "take one of those gadgets out to the garage."
"Which one ?"
"It doesn't matter."
So he took one and I spread another handful of dirt and, in a second, it was gone.
Bill was back by that time and I sent him out with another gadget.
We kept on like that for quite a while and Bill was beginning to get disgusted with me. But finally I sprinkled the dirt and it stayed.
"Bill," I said, "you remember the last thing you took out ?"
"Well, go out and bring it back again."
He got it and, as soon as he reached the door of the den, the dirt disappeared.
"Well, that's it," I said.
"That's what ?" asked Helen.
I pointed to the contraption Bill had in his hand. "That.
Throw away your vacuum cleaner. Burn up the dustcloth. Heave out the mop. Just have one of those in the house and .... "
She threw herself into my arms.
We danced a jig, the two of us.
Then I sat around for a while, kicking myseff for tying up with Lewis, wondering if maybe there wasn't some way I could break the contract now that I had found something without any help from him. But I remembered all those clauses we had written in. It wouldn't have been any use, anyhow, for Helen was already across the street, telling Marge about it.
So I phoned Lewis at the lab and he came tearing over.
We ran field tests.
The living-room was spotless from Bill just having walked through it, carrying the gadget, and the garage, where he had taken it momentarily, was spick-and-span. While we didn't check it, I imagine that an area paralleling the path he had taken from the front door to the garage was the only place outdoors that didn't have a speck of dust upon it.
We took the gadget down in the basement and cleaned that up. We sneaked over to a neighbour's back yard, where we knew there was a lot of cement dust, held the gadget over it and in an instant there wasn't any cement dust. There were just a few pebbles left and the pebbles, I suppose, you couldn't rightly classify as dust.
We didn't need to know any more.
Back at the house, I broke open a bottle of Scotch I'd been saving, while Lewis sat down at the kitchen table and drew a sketch of the gadget.
We had a drink, then went into the den and put the drawing on the desk. The drawing disappeared and we waited. In a few minutes, another one of the gadgets appeared. We waited for a while and nothing happened.
"We've got to let him know we want a lot of them," I said.
"There's no way we can," said Lewis. "We don't know his mathematical symbols, he doesn't know ours, and there's no sure-fire way to teach him. He doesn't know a single word of our language and we don't know a word of his."
We went back to the kitchen and had another drink.
Lewis sat down and drew a row &the gadgets across a sheet of paper, then sketched in representations of others behind them so that, when you looked at it, you could see that there were hundreds of them.
We sent that through.
Fourteen gadgets came back--the exact number Lewis had sketched in 'the first row.
Apparently the Trader had no idea of perspective. The lines that Lewis had drawn to represent the other gadgets behind the first row didn't mean a thing to him.
We went back to the kitchen and had a few more drinks.
"We'll need thousands of the things," said Lewis, holding his head in his hands. "I can't sit here day and night, drawing them."
"You may have to do that," I said, enjoying myself.
"There must be another way."
"Why not draw a bunch of them, then mimeograph the drawing?" I suggested. "We could send the mimeographer sheets through to him in bundles."
I hated to say it, because I was still enamoured of the idea o: sticking Lewis somewhere off in a corner, sentenced to a lifetime of drawing the same thing over and over.
"That might work," said Lewis, brightening annoyingly
"It's just simple enough .... "
"Practical is the word," I snapped. "If it were simple, you'c have thought of it."
"I leave things like that to detail men."
"You'd better I"
It took a while and a whole bottle before we calmed down.
Next day, we bought a mimeograph machine and Lewis drew a stencil with twenty-five of the gadgets on it. We ran through a hundred sheets and sent them through the desk.
It worked--we were busy for several hours, getting those gadgets out of the way as they poured through to us.
I'm afraid we never stopped to think about what the Trader might want in return for the dust-collectors. We were so excited that we forgot, for the moment, that this was a commercial proposition and not just something gratis.
But the next afternoon, back came the mimeographed sheets we'd sent through and, on the reverse side of each of them, the Trader had drawn twenty-five representations of the zebra on the bracelet charm.
And there we were, faced with the necessity of getting together pronto, twenty-five hundred of those silly zebras.
I tore down to the store where rd gotten the bracelet, but all they had in stock were two dozen of the things. They said they didn't think they could order any more. The number, they said, had been discontinued.
The name of the company that made them was stamped on the inside of the bracelet and, as soon as I got home, I put in a long distance call.
I finally got hold of the production manager. "You know those bracelets you put out ?"
"We put out milhons of 'era. Which one are you talking about ?"
"The one with the zebra on it."
He thought a moment. "Yeah, we did. Quite a while ago. We don't make them any more. In this business .... "
"I need at least twenty-five hundred of them."
”Twenty-five hundred bracelets?"
"No, just the zebras."
"Look, is this a gag 7"
"It's no gag, mister," I said. "I need those zebras. I'm willing to pay for them."
"We haven't any in stock."
"Couldn't you make them9.''
"Not just twenty-five hundred of them. Wouldn't be worth it to put through a special order for so few. If it was fifty thousand, say, we might consider it."
"All right, then," I said. "How much for fifty thousand ?"
He named a price and we haggled some, but I was in no position to do much bargaining. We finally agreed on a price I knew was way too high, considering the fact that the entire bracelet, with the zebra and a lot of other junk, had only retailed at 39 cents.
"And hold the order open," I told him. "We might want more of them."
"Okay," he said. "Just one thingmwould you mind telling me what you want with fifty thousand zebras ?" "Yes, I would," I said and hung up.
I suppose he thought I was off my rocker, but who cared what he thought ?
It took ten days to get that shipment of fifty thousand zebras and I sweated out every minute of it. Then there was the job of getting them under cover when it came and, in case you don't know, fifty thousand zebras, even when they're only bracelet charms, take up room.
But first I took out twenty-five hundred and sent them through the desk.
For the ten days since we'd gotten the dust-collectors, we'd sent nothing through and there had been no sign from the
Trader that he might be getting impatient. I wouldn't have blamed him a bit if he'd done something, like sending through his equivalent of a bomb, to express his dissatisfaction at our slow delivery. I've often wondered what he thought of the long delay--if he hadn't suspected we were reneging on the bargain.
All this time, I had been smoking too much and gnawing my fingernails and I'd figured that Lewis was just as busy seeing what could be done about marketing the dusters.
But when I mentioned it to him he just looked blank. "You know, Joe, I've been doing a lot of worrying."
"We haven't a thing to worry about now," I said, "except getting these things sold."
"But the dust must go somewhere," he fretted.
"The dust ?"
"Sure, the dust these things collect. Remember we picked up an entire pile of cement dust ? What I want to know is where it all went. The gadget itself isn't big enough to hold it. It isn't big enough to hold even a week's collection of dust from the average house. That's what worries me--where does it go ?"
"I don't care where. It goes, doesn't it?"
"That's the pragmatic view," he said scornfully.
It turned out that Lewis hadn't done a thing about marketing, so I got busy.
But I ran into the same trouble we'd had trying to sell the emotion gauge.
The dust collector wasn't patented and it didn't have a brand name. There was no fancy label stuck on it and it didn't bear a manufacturer's imprint. And when anybody asked me how it worked, I couldn't answer.
One wholesaler did make me a ridiculous offer. I laughed in his face and walked out.
That night, Lewis and I sat around the kitchen table, drinking beer, and neither of us too happy. I could see a lot of trouble ahead in getting the gadgets sold. Lewis, it seemed, was still worrying about what happened to the dust.
He had taken one of the dust-collectors apart and the only thing he could find out about it was that there was some feeble force-field operating inside of it--feeble yet strong enough to play hell with the electrical circuits and fancy metering machinery he has at the lab. As soon as he found out what was happening, he slapped the cover back on as quick as he could and then everything was all right. The cover was a shield against the force-field.
"That dust must be getting thrown into another dimension," he told me, looking like a hound-dog that had lost a coon track.
"Maybe not. It could be winding up in one of those dust clouds way out in space." He shook his head.
"You can't tell me," I said, "that the Trader is crazy enough to sell us a gadget that will throw dust back into his face."
"You miss the point entirely. The Trader is operating from another dimension. He must be. And ff there are two dimensions, his and ours, there may be others. The Trader must have used these dust-collectors himself--not for the same purpose we intend, perhaps, but they get rid of something that he doesn't want around. So, necessarily, they'd have to be rigged to get rid of it in a dimension other than his."
We sat there drinking beer and I started turning over that business about different dimensions in my head. I couldn't grasp the concept. Maybe Lewis was right about me being a pragmatist. If you can't see it or touch it or even guess what it would be like, how can you believe there might be another dimension 9. I couldn't.
So I started to talk about marketing the dust-collector and before Lewis went home that night, we'd decided that the only thing left to do was sell it door to door. We even agreed to charge $12.50 for it. The zebras figured out to four cents each and we would pay our salesmen ten per cent commission, which would leave us a profit of $11.21 apiece.
I put an ad in the paper for salesmen and the next day we had several applicants. We started them out on a trial run.
Those gadgets sold like hotcakes and we knew we were ial
I quit my job and settled down to handling the sales end,while Lewis went back to the lab and started going through the pile of junk we had gotten from the Trader.
There are a lot of headaches running a sales campaign. You have to map out territories for your salesmen, get clearance from Better Business Bureaus, bail out your men ff they're thrown in the clink for running afoul of some obscure village ordinance. There are more worrisome angles to it than you can imagine.
But in a couple of months' time, things were running pretty smoothly. We had the state well covered and were branching out into others. I had ordered another fifty thousand zebras and told them to expect re-orders--and the desk top was a busy place. It got to a point, finally, where I had to hire three men full-time, paying them plenty not to talk, to man that desk top twenty-four hours a day. We'd send through zebras for eight hours, then take away dust gadgets for eight hours, then feed through zebras for another eight.
If the Trader had any qualms about what was happening, he gave no sign of it. He seemed perfectly happy to send us dustcollectors so long as we sent him zebras.
The neighbours were curious and somewhat upset at first, but finally they got used to it. If I could have moved to some other location, I would have, for the house was more an office than a home and we had practically no family life at all. But if we wanted to stay in business, we had to stay right where we were because it was the only place we had contact with the Trader.
The money kept rolling in and I turned the management of it over to Helen and Marge. The income tax boys gave us a rough time when we didn't show any manufacturing expenses, but since we weren't inclined to argue over what we had to pay,
couldn't do anything about it.
Lewis was wearing himself down to a nubbin at the lab, but
!~ wasn't finding anything that we could use.
But he still did some worrying now and then about where all that dust was going. And he was right, probably for the first time in his life.
One afternoon, a couple of years after we'd started selling the dust-collectors, I had been uptown to attend to some banking difficulties that Helen and Marge had gotten all bollixed up.
I'd no more than pulled into the driveway when Helen came bursting out of the house. She was covered with dust, her face streaked with it, and she was the maddest-looking woman I have ever seen.
"You've got to do something about it, Joe !" she shrieked.
"About what ?"
"The dust! It's pouring into the house !"
"Where is it pouring from ?'
I could see she'd opened all the windows and there was dust pouring out of them, almost like a smoke cloud. I got out of the car and took a quick look up and down the street. Every house in the block had its windows open and there was dust coming out of all of them and the neighbourhood was boiling with angry, screaming women.
"Where's Bill ?" I asked.
I ran around the house and called him and he came running.
Marge had come across the street and, if anything, she was about six degrees sorer about all the dust than Helen was.
"Get in the car," I said.
"Where are we going ?" Marge demanded.
"Out to pick up Lewis."
I must have sounded like nothing to trifle with, for they piled in and I got out of there as fast as the car would take us.
The homes and factories and stores that had bought the gadget were gushing so much dust, visibility wouldn't be worth a damn before long.
I had to wade through about two feet of dust on the laboratory floor to get to Lewis's office and hold a handkerchief over my nose to keep from suffocating.
Inside the car we got our faces wiped offand most of the dust hacked out of our throats. I could see then that Lewis was about three shades paler than usual, although, to tell the truth, he always was a pasty-looking creature.
"It's the creatures from that third dimension," he said anxiously. 'the place where we were sending all the dust. They
got sick and tired of having it pour in on them and they got it figured out and now they're firing the dust right back at us."
"Now calm down. We're just jumping to the conclusion that this was caused by our gadget."
"I checked, Joe. It was. The dust is coming out in jets from every single place where we sent it through. No place else."
"Then all we have to do is fire it back at them."
He shook his head. "Not a chance. The gadget works one way nowgfrom them to us." He coughed and looked wildly at me.
"Think of it ! A couple of million of those gadgets, picking up dust from a couple of million homes, stores and factories--some of them operating for two whole years! Joe, what are we going to do ?"
"We're going to hole up somewhere till this well, blows over."
Being of a nasty legal turn of mind, he probably foresaw even then the countless lawsuits that would avalanche on us.
Personally, I was more scared of being mobbed by angry women.
But that's all past history. We hid out till people had quieted down and then began trying to settle the suits out of court. We had a lot of money and were able to pay off most of them. The judgements against us still outstanding don't amount to more than a few hundred thousand. We could wipe that out pretty quickly if we'd just hit on something else as profitable as the cleaning gadget.
Lewis is working hard at it, but he isn't having any luck. And the Trader is gone now. As soon as we dared come home, I went into the house and had a look at the desk. The inlaid dot was gone. I tried putting something where it had been, but nothing happened.
What scared the Trader off? I'd give a lot to know. Meanwhile, there are some commercial prospects.
The rose-tinted glasses, for instance, that we call the Happiness Lenses. Put them on and you're happy as a clam. Almost every person on the face of the Earth would like a pair of them, so they could forget their troubles for a while. They would probably play hob with the liquor business.
The trouble is that we don't know how to make them and, now that the Trader's gone, we can't swop for them.
But there's one thing that keeps worrying me. I know I shouldn't let it bother me, but I can't keep it out of mind.
Just what did the Trader do with those couple of million zebras we sent him ?