Matteo Ciucci – The cost of a living

641

Murray Sand and his wife Clara were waiting, sitting on the sofa of their living room. Murray was tapping mechanically with his heel against the floor, straining his right leg muscles, and releasing them slowly. Every now and then, he stretched his hand on the table beside the sofa and grabbed an empty glass. He liked the feeling of safety left on his fingers by the hardness of the glass. Murray was leaning it slightly forward, as if he wished to grab and drink it, then he suddenly released it on the table, listening to the tone of its vibration increasing its pitch. At his side, Clara stared mesmerized at the digits of the Merchant wall clock. She e listened to the sound of Murray’s glass as if  immersed in a trance.
«When should he arrive?», said Murray.
«He should already be here, dear. But you know how the Merchant officers are », his wife repeated to him softly.
«Yes», Murray muttered more to himself than to her. «And the exams, the documents … You have them with you, right?» he asked cautiously.. He knew he would make her even more nervous with his checks; but, what the heck, they were both nervous!
«Yes, I have all the documents with me, dear».
Clara looked at the oak table in front of the sofa where, next to a new bottle of Jamestown and three clean glasses, there was a bunch of well stacked documents.
«Have you checked out mine?» he asked again.
«Yes, dear, I also checked out yours» replied Clara trying to remain calm.
«Good», concluded Murray. She heard him, but didn’t reply.
Murray believed that his wife hadn’tt heard him, so he repeated louder, «Good».
The apartment of Murray and Clara Sand was small and cosy, located on the thirty-fourth floor of an old skyscraper. The golden light of a large lampshade made the thin embossed damasked tapestry looking like ancient inscriptions from a lost civilization. Next to the sofa towered a pile of magazines, on top of which was a recent issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
«You think we could do as the Jones? I mean, send our son to the Guardian’s?», asked Clara Murray, squeezing his arm.
«I believe so», replied Murray. «I hope that we can do it».
Clara looked at their Merchant watch: the 16.09. «Do you think they charge Merchant’s officials their minutes late ?».
«Everyone has to pay, Clara», said Murray staring at the clock face and suddenly becoming darker.

The door intercom buzzed. A shadow crossed the eyes of the owners, and then dispersed among the dimness of the room and the half-light of the cloudy afternoon. Both got up from the sofa and looked what time it was on the wall clock: 16.09.
“I’ll open myself”, Murray headed to the door.
Clara looked again the black digital numbers against the light and bright background of the liquid crystal clock Merchant, like runes that had accumulated their magical power by waiting and had awakened to the intercom sound. It’s just a Merchant clock, Clara told to herself, to calm down.
To hell with them, finally.
It was while she was thinking about all these things, that the last digit of the Merchant clock changed from nine to zero, while the penultimate digit shone and became a sharp one. This event, both she and Murray knew it very well, meant that, undoubtedly, according to that specific clock and across all earth’s surface, each Merchant clock was reporting exactly the same time: 16.10, Merchant time.
The door opened and Murray found himself in front of the Merchant officer, a tall man, well-built, covered with a classic blue coat that contrasted beautifully with the tan of his face, the blue of his eyes and the perfect line of his greying hair. The officer opened his lips, which were red because of the cold, in a wide smile, and introduced himself to Murray cordially holding out his hand.
«Nice to meet you, Mr. Sand. I’m Mr. Johnson, Merchant Corporate».
He pointed to the three empty glasses on the table and to the shadow of Clara, standing behind him. «From what I see, I’ve been waited for».
«I confess you have been, Mr. Johnson». Murray smiled. «Sit down, please», and stepped aside to let him in the living room.
Johnson crossed the room. Murray, behind him, headed to Clara.
«Mr. Johnson, my wife, Clara», said Murray before the two had come too close; Clara held out her hand timidly. Johnson returned Clara’s with his energetic handshake.
«Would you like something to drink in the meantime, Mr. Johnson?».
Johnson looked at the bottle. «Thank you, Mrs. Sand», he said, «but, know what they say, when we Merchant officers are in service…», and his red lips widened again issuing a second laughter.
«In that case, have a seat», Clara invited him.

The three sat down at the table and Johnson picked up the bundle of documents prepared by Murray and his wife and began examining them one by one. «So, Mr. Sand, as I understand it, you work for the Corporate West, while your wife works for Quitters, is it correct?» he asked smiling with his cherry-red lips in the middle of his suntanned face.
«Yes, that’s right», said Murray. He adjusted himself better on his chair.
«Can you confirm this data? ». He began leafing through the documents in his hand, put the index on one of the forms prepared by Murray, and began methodically to recite.
«Mr. Sand …  your gross family income is of $70,000 per year…», and quickly raised and lowered his eyes, “… Class F health insurance for both, a car’s estimated value of $6000…».
Clara leaned against Murray and squeezed his arm with his hand as he continued to passively record data classifying their social profile: after the examination, he would have determined their Merchant class, the economic class they belonged to, once defined both their income levels, average costs, and overall career opportunities.
«… And no children», concluded Johnson, who raised his eyes from the paper and looked again at the couple. «Is this so far correct, Mr. Sand? »
«Yes, it is, Mr. Johnson».
Johnson changed his expression. He put his hand to his chin thoughtfully and scratched it a little. The smile he had while he was mechanically listening to their economic position faded. «And this one, this is your request to have a child, along with all the documentation relating to your current financial position. Am I right, Mr. Sand? ».
«That’s correct, Mr. Johnson».
«You know, we’d like to call him Jimmy, if …», Clara paused, then quickly looked at Murray, seeking his support. Both then turned to Johnson and, together, shyly smiled  at him.
Johnson mentally read again the data already heard, passed his hand on his tanned chin, and took a more serious expression.
«You realize, Mr. Sand, that in your position…».
«We know we have little chance, Mr. Johnson, I don’t deny it», interrupted Murray. «But we would like to try to have a child anyway».
«At least one», added firmly Clara.
Johnson estimated carefully the faces of the couple, then looked back at the house, as if  to make sure he wasn’t wrong. He proceeded: «In this case, Mr. Sand, before continuing this discussion, let me illustrate which would be, according to Merchant, the future of your eventual son or daughter. It is my duty to open your eyes, even if what you listen to now will be for you a little rough».
The officer pulled out a small handheld computer and pressed gently on its screen. The names of Murray and Clara Sand, together with their complete financial and family status, appeared sparkling on the monitor. Johnson even pulled with his index two or three times on the screen, then emphasized the luminous icon of a child; the word ‘son’ and the number ‘one’ shone on his monitor.
«This is the mathematical model Merchant Corporate for household planning, Mrs. and Mr. Sand. As you know, the Merchant company has been legally authorized by the US government to perform this type of preventive financial analysis in the interest of any future American citizen and thus, primarily, in the exclusive interest of your future child».
He touched again the screen and some new numbers flashed on it. Afterwards, he looked up at Murray and Clara. «With $70,000 of current annual family income, your child would go, with a probability of ninety-eight percent, to a working-class primary school. Given your current area of residence, this should be, with the ninety-percent chance, the Mc Allany».
«In fact we really thought, at the beginning, to send him to the Mc Allany» exclaimed Clara surprised, looking puzzled at the handheld in Johnson’s hands.
Johnson turned to Murray, then continued: «As far as I can see here, the same school you attended, Mr. Sand».
Murray watched nervously the figures on Johnson’s computer slide inexorably one after another. «What if we decide to send him to a better school? To the Guardian’s, or to a Merchant school, perhaps? » he said waving his hands in the air.
Johnson waited until the other finished his sentence. Then he calmly explained the situation: «In this case, Mr. Sand, you should», and touched upon the monitor which twinkled again, «let’s see a bit…borrow at least forty thousand US dollars a year, which would lead you to lose, let’s see … your home ownership in eight years and end your life in a in a category K hospitalK». Clara clung to Murray. «I don’t think I need to show you a video to give you an idea of a hospital of category K», added Johnson.
Clara and Murray were silent.
«But who did these calculations? The Jones, for example, they have sent both their children to the Guardian’s, and didn’t have ….».
Johnson raised his hand in the air to stop them. He took on a dark expression.
«The Jones failed yesterday, Mr. Sand».

Murray was silent. Clara shifted in her chair. “How, broke? When? “, asked Murray, waving his hands even more in the air.
«Two days ago, Mr. Sand», answered Johnson. «I had the Jones case myself. And, to make matters worse, since yesterday it’s now a joke at the Merchant: my colleagues keep asking me if I worked out my parents ‘Jones.’ He laughed blatantly.
«And Tim? And Lena?» asked Clara, surging from the chair.
«But this is precisely the point, Ms. Sand! », replied Johnson.
«However, the state should ensure that the children of an insolvent family», Murray struggled to pronounce the word, «are covered by the National Solidarity Fund. Isn’t that right? ».
«How true, Mr. Murray. But you see», he added, «As you certainly know, this is an exceptional situation the State wishes to minimize, and that under no other circumstances will enjoy the economic right to reproduction. To put it another way, these are persons whose existence is due to a structural and unavoidable error of any model, whose social cost cannot, and mustn’t be paid by the community. As you see, by guaranteeing their existence depriving them of their reproductive rights, the economic instability will be remedied in a generation, and thus, for Smith!, the overall economic stability of the system will be guaranteed element by element».
Murray and Clara continued to remain silent.
«And you really took care of the Jones” asked him timidly Clara.
«They were among my clients, Mrs. Sand. Like you, after all», Johnson clarified. «But you do not want to repeat the mistake made by the Jones, right? An error which cost  the State, because of the support of two children up to their work age, around…» and touched the handheld, which shone again, «one million three hundred thousand dollars». Then he became dark, « You understand the amount of money we are talking about, don’t you? ».

Murray was silent again. On his forehead, three long and deep lines had appeared. Clara suddenly seemed to have become still and silent. She was sunk in the sofa like a doll laid down among the cushions of a cradle.
«So, Mr. Sand», continued Johnson, «if you wish to continue with the examination of the possibilities reserved to the profile of your potential son….»
«Go on», encouraged him Murray, determined.
«Very well, Mr. Sand. So, the most likely profile of the existence of your son, with sixty-eight percent of probability, foresees the following: after attending a state high school, which almost certainly, if you don’t obtain a transfer from the West Corporate, should be the Mc Kensee, you will be left with an actual income, after all the expenses for your son’s college, of….», Johnson touched the screen of his handheld which shone again, «$38,230».
Clara squeezed his fingers to Murray’s knee, but was unable to hold back a sob. She put her handkerchief onto her face and began crying. Murray put his arm behind her back. His brain was invaded by the screams of his thoughts and shattered dreams. He let the sobs cease, then tried to regain his nerves.
«Excuse us, Mr. Johnson», said Clara holding back the tears, her eyes fixed on the ground to avoid looking at Johnson’s eyes.
«Come on», said Murray, «go ahead».
Johnson assumed a more serious appearance and squeezed himself on the chair. «As you know, the economic right to existence provides that the minimum income necessary for each individual cannot be lower than $ 40,000 a year».
Murray stared Clara into her eyes. It was helpless, he knew. Then he thought, lowering his eyes again: «It wouldn’t be possible…», pleaded.
«Mr. Sand», interrupted Johnson, «you know that, if you continue insisting, I will have to report your situation to the Merchant. And that would mean the final and irrevocable loss of your right to have a child, no matter what your economic situation will be in future».
«What can we do then? », interjected Clara, her voice breaking in tears again.
«Mrs. Sand», Johnson regained his calm and enlarged again his cherry-colored lips in a wide smile, «in case your husband, or you, will get a raise of about $ 15,000 per year…».
«But we both already work ten hours a day, Mr. Johnson! », protested Clara.
«I understand, Mrs. Sand, I understand», replied Johnson becoming serious. «However, in this case, the consequences of your choices are the ones that I’ve just described».
Murray looked at Clara, who lowered her eyes.
Johnson rose from his chair and shook his hands with Murray to take leave. «Mrs and Mr. Sand, see you again in three years».
Murray stood up and lazily held out his hand to Johnson.
«Madam», Johnson said, holding out his hand to Clara, still sitting in the chair. Clara refused to give hers.
«Clara, please», begged Murray exhausted.
Clara obeyed, and held out her hand coldly. Johnson shook it vigorously, as if nothing had happened, and headed  for  the door. «Don’t go to any trouble, Mr. Sand, I know the way. And remember that it is, is your right to ask for any revision of your future familiar profile  if ever your balance sheet were to change as a result of any sudden event», he concluded smiling and opening the door.
Murray struggled to respond to his smile, then gave up.
«Goodbye, Mr. Sand».
«Johnson? », Murray arrested him at the door.
«Yes, Mr. Sand», sighed Johnson. He was already out of the apartment and couldn’t wait to leave.
«You do have children, right? » Murray asked nervously. He shouldn’t have allowed that question to slip out at that moment, he knew. But, what the hell!
Johnson stared Murray into the eyes and lost his door-to-door salesman smile. He became suddenly all serious. «What do you mean with that, Mr. Sand? ».
«You have, right? ».
«Three».
«And I bet you of the Merchant, you don’t even have to pay for your  late minutes, do you ? ».
Murray was more and more nervous.
«On this point, Mr. Sand, the treatment given to all officers of the Merchant is defined by national law», said dryly Johnson.
«Which I never voted».
Johnson had taken a step towards the exit and was now standing at the apartment door. Clara got up and ran into the next room. Murray heard her rummaging in the drawers of the bedroom.
«If this is what you think, Mr. Sand, then goodbye», Johnson said. He took a step forward and went out on the landing. He wasn’t fast enough. When he turned back to close the door, he saw Clara, behind Murray, with her  arm extended toward his face. He found himself staring at the gleaming metal barrel of a thirty-eight.
«Come back, please, Mr. Johnson», said Clara. Her voice creaked, shaking with anger.
Murray turned to his wife and cried, «God, Clara, what are you doing? Put my gun down».
Clara’s face, pale and tense, was looking like a ghost’s. Johnson continued staring at the doorway and, when Murray was about to approach her, she managed to snap the charger back and forth in its housing. «Murray, stay still», she ordered him with an icy calm. «And you, Mr. Johnson, have a seat, please».
Johnson took three steps back into the apartment.
«The door», said Clara.
Johnson turned, threw a last glance at the landing, his last way out. He finally closed the door. Murray was silent, terrified by his wife’s look and voice, and by the whole situation in which all three had got  themselves.
«Sit down, Mr. Johnson», repeated Clara trying to remain calm. She pointed at the chair Johnson had just risen from.
Johnson sat down again. The situation seemed ridiculous. «Put down that weapon, Mrs. Sand, and let’s not talk about it anymore», he intimated.
Clara didn’t move. She kept him covered.
«Put your data in your computer and see what comes out, Johnson», said Clara.
Johnson obeyed. He pulled back his handheld computer and, by lightly touching the monitor, inserted his own first and last name in the model of Merchant.
«Write: Children».
Johnson typed: «Three».
He touched the screen again, which glittered as before.
«Now your family income, Johnson».
Johnson stopped for a moment. He settled back in his chair and looked at Murray’s eyes. Clara waited for her husband to observe Johnson, turned to stare him   in the eyes, then pointed the gun back to the Merchant representative.
«You’d better do what she says», Murray begged.
«You heard me. Income, Johnson», Clara ordered him again.
Johnson introduced the figure and touched the monitor, which shimmered. Clara and Murray read: «$756,000».
«Pig», Clara exhaled.
«Now let’s determine your Merchant class».
Johnson obeyed and touched the monitor. All were silent. On the bright screen of the handheld Johnson still clutched in his hands, Clara Murray read, in bright clear letters: “No reproduction limit”.
They spent silently a few moments, probably the longest Johnson had ever experienced in his life. Clara was still staring at the outcome of the analysis of Johnson’s family and kept repeating to herself: «No limit».

She kept repeating it in her mind several times: “no limit, no limit”, until she almost whispered it in front of her husband and Johnson: «No limit», she said.
Murray was standing in front of Clara. He continued to move his eyes from the officer’s to his wife’s. He was interrupted by the heavy sound of Clara’s voice: «You see, Johnson, one of your families is worth at least ten of ours». She squeezed even more vigorously the hand on the gun. Then, in an expressionless tone of voice that Murray had never heard from her, she continued: «As in war. As in World War II. You never read about it, Johnson? It was before the policies of social restructuring, prior to the Merchant. Then everything was much simpler: one to ten. Do you remember, Johnson?».
Johnson was silent. She was a fanatic, it was clear. And in which kind of situation he was stuck, dammit!
«You’ll agree, therefore, that, if I kill you now, ten other families will indirectly benefit from your income, tomorrow», said Clara with the same neutral tone. «We could also change the Merchant model to include this possibility. What do you think about this idea, Johnson? ». She shouted to his face: «Why don’t you write that too, in that thing?».
«Clara, please, put the gun down», Murray begged fearfully while holding out a hand towards the gun.
Johnson was silent. He contemplated the hard expression of Clara, the frightened face of Murray, the the gun barrel, and, on the bright screen of his handheld, the shining writing: “No reproduction limit”.
“No reproduction limit”, thought Johnson. “One in ten”, he remembered quite unintentionally. That thought stormed among the others that were swirling in his head. “Would it be economically justifiable?”, he thought in panic. What the hell was he now thinking? He mentally reread the writing which continued to sparkle on the screen of his handheld. “No reproduction limit”. He looked again at  the white wall. Fixed in front of him, the Merchant clock was shining. It was 16:19, Merchant time. “One more and …”.
He couldn’t finish his thought. He was interrupted by a thirty-eight calibre bullet piercing his brain from side to side.

THE END

English version edited by Irene Tossi