A Fall of Glass

by Stanley R. Lee

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The weatherman was always right: Temperature, 59; humidity, 47%; occasional light showers--but of what?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The pockets of Mr. Humphrey Fownes were being picked outrageously.

It was a splendid day. The temperature was a crisp 59 degrees, the humidity a mildly dessicated 47%. The sun was a flaming orange ball in a cloudless blue sky.

His pockets were picked eleven times.

It should have been difficult. Under the circumstances it was a masterpiece of pocket picking. What made it possible was Humphrey Fownes’ abstraction; he was an uncommonly preoccupied individual. He was strolling along a quiet residential avenue: small private houses, one after another, a place of little traffic and minimum distractions. But he was thinking about weather, which was an unusual subject to begin with for a person living in a domed city. He was thinking so deeply about it that it never occurred to him that entirely too many people were bumping into him. He was thinking about Optimum Dome Conditions (a crisp 59 degrees, a mildly dessicated 47%) when a bogus postman, who pretended to be reading a postal card, jostled him. In the confusion of spilled letters and apologies from both sides, the postman rifled Fownes’s handkerchief and inside jacket pockets.

He was still thinking about temperature and humidity when a pretty girl happened along with something in her eye. They collided. She got his right and left jacket pockets. It was much too much for coincidence. The sidewalk was wide enough to allow four people to pass at one time. He should surely have become suspicious when two men engaged in a heated argument came along. In the ensuing contretemps they emptied his rear pants pockets, got his wristwatch and restored the contents of the handkerchief pocket. It all went off very smoothly, like a game of put and take--the sole difference being that Humphrey Fownes had no idea he was playing.

There was an occasional tinkle of falling glass.

It fell on the streets and houses, making small geysers of shiny mist, hitting with a gentle musical sound, like the ephemeral droppings of a celesta. It was precipitation peculiar to a dome: feather-light fragments showering harmlessly on the city from time to time. Dome weevils, their metal arms reaching out with molten glass, roamed the huge casserole, ceaselessly patching and repairing.

Humphrey Fownes strode through the puffs of falling glass still intrigued by a temperature that was always 59 degrees, by a humidity that was always 47%, by weather that was always Optimum. It was this rather than skill that enabled the police to maintain such a tight surveillance on him, a surveillance that went to the extent of getting his fingerprints off the postman’s bag, and which photographed, X-rayed and chemically analyzed the contents of his pockets before returning them. Two blocks away from his home a careless housewife spilled a five-pound bag of flour as he was passing. It was really plaster of Paris. He left his shoe prints, stride measurement, height, weight and handedness behind.

By the time Fownes reached his front door an entire dossier complete with photographs had been prepared and was being read by two men in an orange patrol car parked down the street.

Lanfierre had undoubtedly been affected by his job.

Sitting behind the wheel of the orange car, he watched Humphrey Fownes approach with a distinct feeling of admiration, although it was an odd, objective kind of admiration, clinical in nature. It was similar to that of a pathologist observing for the first time a new and particularly virulent strain of pneumococcus under his microscope.

Lanfierre’s job was to ferret out aberration. It couldn’t be tolerated within the confines of a dome. Conformity had become more than a social force; it was a physical necessity. And, after years of working at it, Lanfierre had become an admirer of eccentricity. He came to see that genuine quirks were rare and, as time went on, due partly to his own small efforts, rarer.

Fownes was a masterpiece of queerness. He was utterly inexplicable. Lanfierre was almost proud of Humphrey Fownes.

“Sometimes his house shakes,” Lanfierre said.

“House shakes,” Lieutenant MacBride wrote in his notebook. Then he stopped and frowned. He reread what he’d just written.

“You heard right. The house shakes,” Lanfierre said, savoring it.

MacBride looked at the Fownes house through the magnifying glass of the windshield. “Like from... side to side?” he asked in a somewhat patronizing tone of voice.

“And up and down.”

MacBride returned the notebook to the breast pocket of his orange uniform. “Go on,” he said, amused. “It sounds interesting.” He tossed the dossier carelessly on the back seat.

Lanfierre sat stiffly behind the wheel, affronted. The cynical MacBride couldn’t really appreciate fine aberrations. In some ways MacBride was a barbarian. Lanfierre had held out on Fownes for months. He had even contrived to engage him in conversation once, a pleasantly absurd, irrational little chat that titillated him for weeks. It was only with the greatest reluctance that he finally mentioned Fownes to MacBride. After years of searching for differences Lanfierre had seen how extraordinarily repetitious people were, echoes really, dimly resounding echoes, each believing itself whole and separate. They spoke in an incessant chatter of cliches, and their actions were unbelievably trite.

Then a fine robust freak came along and the others--the echoes--refused to believe it. The lieutenant was probably on the point of suggesting a vacation.

“Why don’t you take a vacation?” Lieutenant MacBride suggested.

“It’s like this, MacBride. Do you know what a wind is? A breeze? A zephyr?”

“I’ve heard some.”

“They say there are mountain-tops where winds blow all the time. Strong winds, MacBride. Winds like you and I can’t imagine. And if there was a house sitting on such a mountain and if winds did blow, it would shake exactly the way that one does. Sometimes I get the feeling the whole place is going to slide off its foundation and go sailing down the avenue.”

Lieutenant MacBride pursed his lips.

“I’ll tell you something else,” Lanfierre went on. “The windows all close at the same time. You’ll be watching and all of a sudden every single window in the place will drop to its sill.” Lanfierre leaned back in the seat, his eyes still on the house. “Sometimes I think there’s a whole crowd of people in there waiting for a signal--as if they all had something important to say but had to close the windows first so no one could hear. Why else close the windows in a domed city? And then as soon as the place is buttoned up they all explode into conversation--and that’s why the house shakes.”

MacBride whistled.

“No, I don’t need a vacation.”

A falling piece of glass dissolved into a puff of gossamer against the windshield. Lanfierre started and bumped his knee on the steering wheel.

“No, you don’t need a rest,” MacBride said. “You’re starting to see flying houses, hear loud babbling voices. You’ve got winds in your brain, Lanfierre, breezes of fatigue, zephyrs of irrationality--”

At that moment, all at once, every last window in the house slammed shut.

The street was deserted and quiet, not a movement, not a sound. MacBride and Lanfierre both leaned forward, as if waiting for the ghostly babble of voices to commence.

The house began to shake.

It rocked from side to side, it pitched forward and back, it yawed and dipped and twisted, straining at the mooring of its foundation. The house could have been preparing to take off and sail down the...

MacBride looked at Lanfierre and Lanfierre looked at MacBride and then they both looked back at the dancing house.

“And the water,” Lanfierre said. “The water he uses! He could be the thirstiest and cleanest man in the city. He could have a whole family of thirsty and clean kids, and he still wouldn’t need all that water.”

The lieutenant had picked up the dossier. He thumbed through the pages now in amazement. “Where do you get a guy like this?” he asked. “Did you see what he carries in his pockets?”

“And compasses won’t work on this street.”

The lieutenant lit a cigarette and sighed.

He usually sighed when making the decision to raid a dwelling. It expressed his weariness and distaste for people who went off and got neurotic when they could be enjoying a happy, normal existence. There was something implacable about his sighs.

“He’ll be coming out soon,” Lanfierre said. “He eats supper next door with a widow. Then he goes to the library. Always the same. Supper at the widow’s next door and then the library.”

MacBride’s eyebrows went up a fraction of an inch. “The library?” he said. “Is he in with that bunch?”

Lanfierre nodded.

“Should be very interesting,” MacBride said slowly.

“I can’t wait to see what he’s got in there,” Lanfierre murmured, watching the house with a consuming interest.

They sat there smoking in silence and every now and then their eyes widened as the house danced a new step.

Fownes stopped on the porch to brush the plaster of paris off his shoes. He hadn’t seen the patrol car and this intense preoccupation of his was also responsible for the dancing house--he simply hadn’t noticed. There was a certain amount of vibration, of course. He had a bootleg pipe connected into the dome blower system, and the high-pressure air caused some buffeting against the thin walls of the house. At least, he called it buffeting; he’d never thought to watch from outside.

He went in and threw his jacket on the sofa, there being no room left in the closets. Crossing the living room he stopped to twist a draw-pull.

Every window slammed shut.

“Tight as a kite,” he thought, satisfied. He continued on toward the closet at the foot of the stairs and then stopped again. Was that right? No, snug as a hug in a rug. He went on, thinking: The old devils.

The downstairs closet was like a great watch case, a profusion of wheels surrounding the Master Mechanism, which was a miniature see-saw that went back and forth 365-1/4 times an hour. The wheels had a curious stateliness about them. They were all quite old, salvaged from grandfather’s clocks and music boxes and they went around in graceful circles at the rate of 30 and 31 times an hour ... although there was one slightly eccentric cam that vacillated between 28 and 29. He watched as they spun and flashed in the darkness, and then set them for seven o’clock in the evening, April seventh, any year.

Outside, the domed city vanished.

It was replaced by an illusion. Or, as Fownes hoped it might appear, the illusion of the domed city vanished and was replaced by a more satisfactory, and, for his specific purpose, more functional, illusion. Looking through the window he saw only a garden.

Instead of an orange sun at perpetual high noon, there was a red sun setting brilliantly, marred only by an occasional arcover which left the smell of ozone in the air. There was also a gigantic moon. It hid a huge area of sky, and it sang. The sun and moon both looked down upon a garden that was itself scintillant, composed largely of neon roses.

Moonlight, he thought, and roses. Satisfactory. And cocktails for two. Blast, he’d never be able to figure that one out! He watched as the moon played, Oh, You Beautiful Doll and the neon roses flashed slowly from red to violet, then went back to the closet and turned on the scent. The house began to smell like an immensely concentrated rose as the moon shifted to People Will Say We’re In Love.

He rubbed his chin critically. It seemed all right. A dreamy sunset, an enchanted moon, flowers, scent.

They were all purely speculative of course. He had no idea how a rose really smelled--or looked for that matter. Not to mention a moon. But then, neither did the widow. He’d have to be confident, assertive. Insist on it. I tell you, my dear, this is a genuine realistic romantic moon. Now, does it do anything to your pulse? Do you feel icy fingers marching up and down your spine?

His own spine didn’t seem to be affected. But then he hadn’t read that book on ancient mores and courtship customs.

How really odd the ancients were. Seduction seemed to be an incredibly long and drawn-out process, accompanied by a considerable amount of falsification. Communication seemed virtually impossible. “No” meant any number of things, depending on the tone of voice and the circumstances. It could mean yes, it could mean ask me again later on this evening.

He went up the stairs to the bedroom closet and tried the rain-maker, thinking roguishly: Thou shalt not inundate. The risks he was taking! A shower fell gently on the garden and a male chorus began to chant Singing in the Rain. Undiminished, the yellow moon and the red sun continued to be brilliant, although the sun occasionally arced over and demolished several of the neon roses.

The last wheel in the bedroom closet was a rather elegant steering wheel from an old 1995 Studebaker. This was on the bootleg pipe; he gingerly turned it.

Far below in the cellar there was a rumble and then the soft whistle of winds came to him.

He went downstairs to watch out the living room window. This was important; the window had a really fixed attitude about air currents. The neon roses bent and tinkled against each other as the wind rose and the moon shook a trifle as it whispered Cuddle Up a Little Closer.

He watched with folded arms, considering how he would start. My dear Mrs. Deshazaway. Too formal. They’d be looking out at the romantic garden; time to be a bit forward. My very dear Mrs. Deshazaway. No. Contrived. How about a simple, Dear Mrs. Deshazaway. That might be it. I was wondering, seeing as how it’s so late, if you wouldn’t rather stay over instead of going home...

Preoccupied, he hadn’t noticed the winds building up, didn’t hear the shaking and rattling of the pipes. There were attic pipes connected to wall pipes and wall pipes connected to cellar pipes, and they made one gigantic skeleton that began to rattle its bones and dance as high-pressure air from the dome blower rushed in, slowly opening the Studebaker valve wider and wider...

The neon roses thrashed about, extinguishing each other. The red sun shot off a mass of sparks and then quickly sank out of sight. The moon fell on the garden and rolled ponderously along, crooning When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day.

The shaking house finally woke him up. He scrambled upstairs to the Studebaker wheel and shut it off.

At the window again, he sighed. Repairs were in order. And it wasn’t the first time the winds got out of line.

Why didn’t she marry him and save all this bother? He shut it all down and went out the front door, wondering about the rhyme of the months, about stately August and eccentric February and romantic April. April. Its days were thirty and it followed September. And all the rest have thirty-one. What a strange people, the ancients!

He still didn’t see the orange car parked down the street.

“Men are too perishable,” Mrs. Deshazaway said over dinner. “For all practical purposes I’m never going to marry again. All my husbands die.”

“Would you pass the beets, please?” Humphrey Fownes said.

She handed him a platter of steaming red beets. “And don’t look at me that way,” she said. “I’m not going to marry you and if you want reasons I’ll give you four of them. Andrew. Curt. Norman. And Alphonse.”

The widow was a passionate woman. She did everything passionately--talking, cooking, dressing. Her beets were passionately red. Her clothes rustled and her high heels clicked and her jewelry tinkled. She was possessed by an uncontrollable dynamism. Fownes had never known anyone like her. “You forgot to put salt on the potatoes,” she said passionately, then went on as calmly as it was possible for her to be, to explain why she couldn’t marry him. “Do you have any idea what people are saying? They’re all saying I’m a cannibal! I rob my husbands of their life force and when they’re empty I carry their bodies outside on my way to the justice of the peace.”

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