Cost of Living

by Robert Sheckley

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: If easy payment plans were to be really efficient, patrons' lifetimes had to be extended!

Carrin decided that he could trace his present mood to Miller’s suicide last week. But the knowledge didn’t help him get rid of the vague, formless fear in the back of his mind. It was foolish. Miller’s suicide didn’t concern him.

But why had that fat, jovial man killed himself? Miller had had everything to live for--wife, kids, good job, and all the marvelous luxuries of the age. Why had he done it?

“Good morning, dear,” Carrin’s wife said as he sat down at the breakfast table.

“Morning, honey. Morning, Billy.”

His son grunted something.

You just couldn’t tell about people, Carrin decided, and dialed his breakfast. The meal was gracefully prepared and served by the new Avignon Electric Auto-cook.

His mood persisted, annoyingly enough since Carrin wanted to be in top form this morning. It was his day off, and the Avignon Electric finance man was coming. This was an important day.

He walked to the door with his son.

“Have a good day, Billy.”

His son nodded, shifted his books and started to school without answering. Carrin wondered if something was bothering him, too. He hoped not. One worrier in the family was plenty.

“See you later, honey.” He kissed his wife as she left to go shopping.

At any rate, he thought, watching her go down the walk, at least she’s happy. He wondered how much she’d spend at the A. E. store.

Checking his watch, he found that he had half an hour before the A. E. finance man was due. The best way to get rid of a bad mood was to drown it, he told himself, and headed for the shower.


The shower room was a glittering plastic wonder, and the sheer luxury of it eased Carrin’s mind. He threw his clothes into the A. E. automatic Kleen-presser, and adjusted the shower spray to a notch above “brisk.” The five-degrees-above-skin-temperature water beat against his thin white body. Delightful! And then a relaxing rub-dry in the A. E. Auto-towel.

Wonderful, he thought, as the towel stretched and kneaded his stringy muscles. And it should be wonderful, he reminded himself. The A. E. Auto-towel with shaving attachments had cost three hundred and thirteen dollars, plus tax.

But worth every penny of it, he decided, as the A. E. shaver came out of a corner and whisked off his rudimentary stubble. After all, what good was life if you couldn’t enjoy the luxuries?

His skin tingled when he switched off the Auto-towel. He should have been feeling wonderful, but he wasn’t. Miller’s suicide kept nagging at his mind, destroying the peace of his day off.

Was there anything else bothering him? Certainly there was nothing wrong with the house. His papers were in order for the finance man.

“Have I forgotten something?” he asked out loud.

“The Avignon Electric finance man will be here in fifteen minutes,” his A. E. bathroom Wall-reminder whispered.

“I know that. Is there anything else?”

The Wall-reminder reeled off its memorized data--a vast amount of minutiae about watering the lawn, having the Jet-lash checked, buying lamb chops for Monday, and the like. Things he still hadn’t found time for.

“All right, that’s enough.” He allowed the A. E. Auto-dresser to dress him, skillfully draping a new selection of fabrics over his bony frame. A whiff of fashionable masculine perfume finished him and he went into the living room, threading his way between the appliances that lined the walls.

A quick inspection of the dials on the wall assured him that the house was in order. The breakfast dishes had been sanitized and stacked, the house had been cleaned, dusted, polished, his wife’s garments had been hung up, his son’s model rocket ships had been put back in the closet.

Stop worrying, you hypochondriac, he told himself angrily.

The door announced, “Mr. Pathis from Avignon Finance is here.”

Carrin started to tell the door to open, when he noticed the Automatic Bartender.

Good God, why hadn’t he thought of it!

The Automatic Bartender was manufactured by Castile Motors. He had bought it in a weak moment. A. E. wouldn’t think very highly of that, since they sold their own brand.


He wheeled the bartender into the kitchen, and told the door to open.

“A very good day to you, sir,” Mr. Pathis said.

Pathis was a tall, imposing man, dressed in a conservative tweed drape. His eyes had the crinkled corners of a man who laughs frequently. He beamed broadly and shook Carrin’s hand, looking around the crowded living room.

“A beautiful place you have here, sir. Beautiful! As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ll be overstepping the company’s code to inform you that yours is the nicest interior in this section.”

Carrin felt a sudden glow of pride at that, thinking of the rows of identical houses, on this block and the next, and the one after that.

“Now, then, is everything functioning properly?” Mr. Pathis asked, setting his briefcase on a chair. “Everything in order?”

“Oh, yes,” Carrin said enthusiastically. “Avignon Electric never goes out of whack.”

“The phone all right? Changes records for the full seventeen hours?”

“It certainly does,” Carrin said. He hadn’t had a chance to try out the phone, but it was a beautiful piece of furniture.

“The Solido-projector all right? Enjoying the programs?”

“Absolutely perfect reception.” He had watched a program just last month, and it had been startlingly lifelike.

“How about the kitchen? Auto-cook in order? Recipe-master still knocking ‘em out?”

“Marvelous stuff. Simply marvelous.”

Mr. Pathis went on to inquire about his refrigerator, his vacuum cleaner, his car, his helicopter, his subterranean swimming pool, and the hundreds of other items Carrin had bought from Avignon Electric.

“Everything is swell,” Carrin said, a trifle untruthfully since he hadn’t unpacked every item yet. “Just wonderful.”

“I’m so glad,” Mr. Pathis said, leaning back with a sigh of relief. “You have no idea how hard we try to satisfy our customers. If a product isn’t right, back it comes, no questions asked. We believe in pleasing our customers.”

“I certainly appreciate it, Mr. Pathis.”


Carrin hoped the A. E. man wouldn’t ask to see the kitchen. He visualized the Castile Motors Bartender in there, like a porcupine in a dog show.

“I’m proud to say that most of the people in this neighborhood buy from us,” Mr. Pathis was saying. “We’re a solid firm.”

“Was Mr. Miller a customer of yours?” Carrin asked.

“That fellow who killed himself?” Pathis frowned briefly. “He was, as a matter of fact. That amazed me, sir, absolutely amazed me. Why, just last month the fellow bought a brand-new Jet-lash from me, capable of doing three hundred and fifty miles an hour on a straightaway. He was as happy as a kid over it, and then to go and do a thing like that! Of course, the Jet-lash brought up his debt a little.”

“Of course.”

“But what did that matter? He had every luxury in the world. And then he went and hung himself.”

“Hung himself?”

“Yes,” Pathis said, the frown coming back. “Every modern convenience in his house, and he hung himself with a piece of rope. Probably unbalanced for a long time.”

The frown slid off his face, and the customary smile replaced it. “But enough of that! Let’s talk about you.”

The smile widened as Pathis opened his briefcase. “Now, then, your account. You owe us two hundred and three thousand dollars and twenty-nine cents, Mr. Carrin, as of your last purchase. Right?”

“Right,” Carrin said, remembering the amount from his own papers. “Here’s my installment.”

He handed Pathis an envelope, which the man checked and put in his pocket.

“Fine. Now you know, Mr. Carrin, that you won’t live long enough to pay us the full two hundred thousand, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t suppose I will,” Carrin said soberly.

He was only thirty-nine, with a full hundred years of life before him, thanks to the marvels of medical science. But at a salary of three thousand a year, he still couldn’t pay it all off and have enough to support a family on at the same time.

“Of course, we would not want to deprive you of necessities, which in any case is fully protected by the laws we helped formulate and pass. To say nothing of the terrific items that are coming out next year. Things you wouldn’t want to miss, sir!”

Mr. Carrin nodded. Certainly he wanted new items.

“Well, suppose we make the customary arrangement. If you will just sign over your son’s earnings for the first thirty years of his adult life, we can easily arrange credit for you.”


Mr. Pathis whipped the papers out of his briefcase and spread them in front of Carrin.

“If you’ll just sign here, sir.”

“Well,” Carrin said, “I’m not sure. I’d like to give the boy a start in life, not saddle him with--”

“But my dear sir,” Pathis interposed, “this is for your son as well. He lives here, doesn’t he? He has a right to enjoy the luxuries, the marvels of science.”

“Sure,” Carrin said. “Only--”

“Why, sir, today the average man is living like a king. A hundred years ago the richest man in the world couldn’t buy what any ordinary citizen possesses at present. You mustn’t look upon it as a debt. It’s an investment.”

“That’s true,” Carrin said dubiously.

He thought about his son and his rocket ship models, his star charts, his maps. Would it be right? he asked himself.

“What’s wrong?” Pathis asked cheerfully.

“Well, I was just wondering,” Carrin said. “Signing over my son’s earnings--you don’t think I’m getting in a little too deep, do you?”

“Too deep? My dear sir!” Pathis exploded into laughter. “Do you know Mellon down the block? Well, don’t say I said it, but he’s already mortgaged his grandchildren’s salary for their full life-expectancy! And he doesn’t have half the goods he’s made up his mind to own! We’ll work out something for him. Service to the customer is our job and we know it well.”

Carrin wavered visibly.

“And after you’re gone, sir, they’ll all belong to your son.”

That was true, Carrin thought. His son would have all the marvelous things that filled the house. And after all, it was only thirty years out of a life expectancy of a hundred and fifty.

He signed with a flourish.

“Excellent!” Pathis said. “And by the way, has your home got an A. E. Master-operator?”

It hadn’t. Pathis explained that a Master-operator was new this year, a stupendous advance in scientific engineering. It was designed to take over all the functions of housecleaning and cooking, without its owner having to lift a finger.

“Instead of running around all day, pushing half a dozen different buttons, with the Master-operator all you have to do is push one! A remarkable achievement!”

Since it was only five hundred and thirty-five dollars, Carrin signed for one, having it added to his son’s debt.

Right’s right, he thought, walking Pathis to the door. This house will be Billy’s some day. His and his wife’s. They certainly will want everything up-to-date.

Just one button, he thought. That would be a time-saver!


After Pathis left, Carrin sat back in an adjustable chair and turned on the solido. After twisting the Ezi-dial, he discovered that there was nothing he wanted to see. He tilted back the chair and took a nap.

The something on his mind was still bothering him.

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