Frederik Pohl was a science-fiction pioneer and a social critic—and also a communist sympathizer despite his deep skepticism that social engineering can bring about utopia. And nothing better encapsulates Pohl in all his complexity than a short story he penned in 1956, Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus.

It’s 8 000 words long, short for a story, maybe a bit long if you’re of the twitter generation, but well worth the read.

1956. Science Fiction authors are sometimes true visionaries.

Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus

IT WAS THE CRAZIEST Christmas I ever spent. Partly it was Heinemann’s fault—he came up with a new wrinkle in gift-wrapping that looked good but like every other idea that comes out of the front office meant plenty of headaches for the rest of us. But what really messed up Christmas for me was the girl. Personnel sent her down—after I’d gone up there myself three times and banged my fist on the table. It was the height of the season and when she told me that she had had her application in three weeks before they called her, I excused myself and got Personnel on the store phone from my private office. “Martin here,” I said. “What the devil’s the matter with you people? This girl is the Emporium type if I ever saw one, and you’ve been letting her sit around nearly a month while——” Crawford, the Personnel head, interrupted me. “Have you talked to her very much?” he wanted to know. “Well, no. But—” “Call me back when you do,” he advised, and clicked off. I went back to the stockroom where she was standing patiently, and looked her over a little thoughtfully. But she looked all right to me. She was blond-haired and blue-eyed and not very big; she had a sweet, slow smile. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, but she looked like a girl you’d want to know. She wasn’t bold, and she wasn’t too shy; and that’s a perfect description of what we call “The Emporium Type.” So what in the world was the matter with Personnel?

Her name was Lilymary Hargreave. I put her to work on the giftwrap spraying machine while I got busy with my paper work. I have a hundred forty-one persons in the department and at the height of the Christmas season I could use twice as many. But we do get the work done. For instance, Saul & Capell, the next biggest store in town, has a hundred and sixty in their gift and counseling department, and their sales run easily twenty-five per cent less than ours. And in the four years that I’ve headed the department we’ve yet to fail to get an order delivered when it was promised. All through that morning I kept getting glimpses of the new girl. She was a quick learner—smart, too smart to be stuck with the sprayer for very long. I needed someone like her around, and right there on the spot I made up my mind that if she was as good as she looked I’d put her in a counseling booth within a week, and the devil with what Personnel thought. The store was packed with last-minute shoppers. I suppose I’m sentimental, but I love to watch the thousands of people bustling in and out, with all the displays going at once, and the lights on the trees, and the loudspeakers playing White Christmas and The Eighth Candle and Jingle Bells and all the other traditional old favorites. Christmas is more than a mere selling season of the year to me; it means something. The girl called me over near closing time. She looked distressed and with some reason. There was a dolly filled with gift-wrapped packages, and a man from Shipping looking annoyed. She said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Martin, but I seem to have done something wrong.” The Shipping man snorted. “Look for yourself, Mr. Martin,” he said, handing me one of the packages. I looked. It was wrong, all right. Heinemann’s new wrinkle that year was a special attached gift card—a simple Yule scene and the printed message:

The very Merriest of Season’s Greetings




The price varied with the item, of course. Heinemann’s idea was for the customer to fill it out and mail it, ahead of time, to the person it was intended for. That way, the person who got it would know just about how much he ought to spend on a present for the first person. It was smart, I admit, and maybe the smartest thing about it was rounding the price off to the nearest fifty cents instead of giving it exactly. Heinemann said it was bad-mannered to be too precise—and the way the customers were going for the idea, it had to be right. But the trouble was that the gift-wrapping machines were geared to only a plain card; it was necessary for the operator to put the price in by hand. I said, “That’s all right, Joe; I’ll take care of it.” As Joe went satisfied back to Shipping, I told the girl: “It’s my fault. I should have explained to you, but I guess I’ve just been a little too rushed.” She looked downcast. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Nothing to be sorry about.” I showed her the routing slip attached to each one, which the Shipping Department kept for its records once the package was on its way. “All we have to do is go through these; the price is on every one. We’ll just fill out the cards and get them out. I guess—” I looked at my watch—”I guess you’ll be a little late tonight, but I’ll see that you get overtime and dinner money for it. It wasn’t your mistake, after all.” She said hesitantly, “Mr. Martin, couldn’t it—well, can I let it go for tonight? It isn’t that I mind working, but I keep house for my father and if I don’t get there on time he just won’t remember to eat dinner. Please?” I suppose I frowned a little, because her expression was a little worried. But, after all, it was her first day. I said, “Miss Hargreave, don’t give it a thought. I’ll take care of it.” The way I took care of it, it turned out, was to do it myself; it was late when I got through, and I ate quickly and went home to bed. But I didn’t mind, for oh! the sweetness of the smile she gave me as she left.

I looked forward to the next morning, because I was looking forward to seeing Lilymary Hargreave again. But my luck was out—for she was. My number-two man, Johnny Furness, reported that she hadn’t phoned either. I called Personnel to get her phone number, but they didn’t have it; I got the address, but the phone company had no phone listed under her name. So I stewed around until the coffee break, and then I put my hat on and headed out of the store. It wasn’t merely that I was interested in seeing her, I told myself; she was just too good a worker to get off on the wrong foot this way, and it was only simple justice for me to go to her home and set her straight. Her house was in a nondescript neighborhood—not too good, not too bad. A gang of kids were playing under a fire hydrant at the corner—but, on the other hand, the houses were neat and nearly new. Middle-class, you’d have to say. I found the address, and knocked on the door of a second-floor apartment. It was opened by a tall, leathery man of fifty or so—Lilymary’s father, I judged. “Good morning,” I said. “Is Miss Hargreave at home?” He smiled; his teeth were bright in a very sun-bronzed face. “Which one?” “Blond girl, medium height, blue eyes. Is there more than one?” “There are four. But you mean Lilymary; won’t you come in?” I followed him, and a six-year-old edition of Lilymary took my hat and gravely hung it on a rack made of bamboo pegs. The leathery man said, “I’m Morton Hargreave, Lily’s father. She’s in the kitchen.” “George Martin,” I said. He nodded and left me, for the kitchen, I presumed. I sat down on an old-fashioned studio couch in the living room, and the six-year-old sat on the edge of a straight-backed chair across from me, making sure I didn’t pocket any of the souvenirs on the mantel. The room was full of curiosities—what looked like a cloth of beaten bark hanging on one wall, with a throwing-spear slung over the cloth. Everything looked vaguely South-Seas, though I am no expert. The six-year-old said seriously, “This is the man, Lilymary,” and I got up. “Good morning,” said Lilymary Hargreave, with a smudge of flour and an expression of concern on her face. I said, floundering, “I, uh, noticed you hadn’t come in and, well, since you were new to the Emporium, I thought——” “I am sorry, Mr. Martin,” she said. “Didn’t Personnel tell you about Sundays?” “What about Sundays?” “I must have my Sundays off,” she explained. “Mr. Crawford said it was very unusual, but I really can’t accept the job any other way.” “Sundays off?” I repeated. “But—but, Miss Hargreave, don’t you see what that does to my schedule? Sunday’s our busiest day! The Emporium isn’t a rich man’s shop; our customers work during the week. If we aren’t staffed to serve them when they can come in, we just aren’t doing the job they expect of us!” She said sincerely, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Martin.” The six-year-old was already reaching for my hat. From the doorway her father said heartily, “Come back again, Mr. Martin. We’ll be glad to see you.” He escorted me to the door, as Lilymary smiled and nodded and headed back to the kitchen. I said, “Mr. Hargreave, won’t you ask Lilymary to come in for the afternoon, at least? I hate to sound like a boss, but I’m really short-handed on weekends, right now at the peak of the season.” “Season?” “The Christmas season,” I explained. “Nearly ninety per cent of our annual business is done in the Christmas season, and a good half of it on weekends. So won’t you ask her?” He shook his head. “Six days the Lord labored, Mr. Martin,” he boomed, “and the seventh was the day of rest. I’m sorry.” And there I was, outside the apartment and the door closing politely but implacably behind me. Crazy people. I rode the subway back to the store in an irritable mood; I bought a paper, but I didn’t read it, because every time I looked at it all I saw was the date that showed me how far the Christmas season already had advanced, how little time we had left to make our quotas and beat last year’s record: the eighth of September. I would have something to say to Miss Lilymary Hargreave when she had the kindness to show up at her job. I promised myself. But, as it turned out, I didn’t. Because that night, checking through the day’s manifolds when everyone else had gone home, I fell in love with Lilymary Hargreave.

Possibly that sounds silly to you. She wasn’t even there, and I’d only known her for a few hours, and when a man begins to push thirty without ever being married, you begin to think he’s a hard case and not likely to fall slambang, impetuously in love like a teenager after his first divorce. But it’s true, all the same. I almost called her up. I trembled on the brink of it, with my hand on the phone. But it was close to midnight, and if she wasn’t home getting ready for bed I didn’t want to know it, so I went home to my own bed. I reached under the pillow and turned off my dreamster before I went to sleep; I had a full library for it, a de luxe model with five hundred dreams that had been a present from the firm the Christmas before. I had Haroun al Rashid’s harem and three of Charles Second’s favorites on tape, and I had rocketing around the moon and diving to Atlantis and winning a sweepstakes and getting elected king of the world; but what I wanted to dream about was not on anybody’s tape, and its name was Lilymary Hargreave.

Monday lasted forever. But at the end of forever, when the tip of the nightingale’s wing had brushed away the mountain of steel and the Shipping personnel were putting on their hats and coats and powdering their noses or combing their hair, I stepped right up to Lilymary Hargreave and asked her to go to dinner with me. She looked astonished, but only for a moment. Then she smiled. I have mentioned the sweetness of her smile. “It’s wonderful of you to ask me, Mr. Martin,” she said earnestly, “and I do appreciate it. But I can’t.” “Please,” I said. “I am sorry.” I might have said please again, and I might have fallen to my knees at her feet, it was that important to me. But the staff was still in the shop, and how would it look for the head of the department to fall at the feet of his newest employee? I said woodenly, “That’s too bad.” And I nodded and turned away, leaving her frowning after me. I cleared my desk sloppily, chucking the invoices in a drawer, and I was halfway out the door when I heard her calling after me: “Mr. Martin, Mr. Martin!” She was hurrying toward me, breathless. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to scream at you. But I just phoned my father, and—” “I thought you didn’t have a phone,” I said accusingly. She blinked at me. “At the rectory,” she explained. “Anyway, I just phoned him, and—well, we’d both be delighted if you would come and have dinner with us at home.” Wonderful words! The whole complexion of the shipping room changed in a moment. I beamed foolishly at her, with a soft surge at my heart; I felt happy enough to endow a home, strong enough to kill a cave bear or give up smoking or any crazy, mixed-up thing. I wanted to shout and sing; but all I said was: “That sounds great.” We headed for the subway, and although I must have talked to her on the ride I cannot remember a word we said, only that she looked like the angel at the top of our tallest Christmas tree.

Dinner was good, and there was plenty of it, cooked by Lilymary herself, and I think I must have seemed a perfect idiot. I sat there, with the six-year-old on one side of me and Lilymary on the other, across from the ten-year-old and the twelve-year-old. The father of them all was at the head of the table, but he was the only other male. I understood there were a couple of brothers, but they didn’t live with the others. I suppose there had been a mother at some time, unless Morton Hargreave stamped the girls out with a kind of cookie-cutter; but whatever she had been she appeared to be deceased. I felt overwhelmed. I wasn’t used to being surrounded by young females, particularly as young as the median in that gathering. Lilymary made an attempt to talk to me, but it wasn’t altogether successful. The younger girls were given to fits of giggling, which she had to put a stop to, and to making what were evidently personal remarks in some kind of a peculiar foreign tongue—it sounded like a weird aboriginal dialect, and I later found out that it was. But it was disconcerting, especially from the lips of a six-year-old with the giggles. So I didn’t make any very intelligent responses to Lilymary’s overtures. But all things end, even eating dinner with giggling girls. And then Mr. Hargreave and I sat in the little parlor, waiting for the girls to— finish doing the dishes? I said, shocked, “Mr. Hargreave, do you mean they wash them?” “Certainly they wash them,” he boomed mildly. “How else would they get them clean, Mr. Martin?” “Why, dishwashers, Mr. Hargreave.” I looked at him in a different way. Business is business. I said, “After all, this is the Christmas season. At the Emporium we put a very high emphasis on dishwashers as a Christmas gift, you know. We—” He interrupted good-humoredly. “I already have my gifts, Mr. Martin. Four of them, and very fine dishwashers they are.” “But Mr. Hargreave—” “Not Mister Hargreave.” The six-year-old was standing beside me, looking disapproving. “Doctor Hargreave.” “Corinne!” said her father. “Forgive her, Mr. Martin. But you see we’re not very used to the—uh, civilized way of doing things. We’ve been a long time with the Dyaks.” The girls were all back from the kitchen, and Lilymary was out of her apron and looking—unbelievable. “Entertainment,” she said brightly. “Mr. Martin, would you like to hear Corinne play?” There was a piano in the corner. I said hastily, “I’m crazy about piano music. But——” Lilymary laughed. “She’s good,” she told me seriously. “Even if I do have to say it to her face. But we’ll let you off that if you like. Gretchen and I sing a little bit, if you’d prefer it?” Wasn’t there any TV in this place? I felt as out of place as an Easterbunny-helper in the Santa Claus line, but Lilymary was still looking unbelievable. So I sat through Lilymary and the twelve-year old named Gretchen singing ancient songs while the six-year-old named Corinne accompanied them on the piano. It was pretty thick. Then the ten-year-old, whose name I never did catch, did recitations; and then they all looked expectantly at me. I cleared my throat, slightly embarrassed. Lilymary said quickly, “Oh, you don’t have to do anything, Mr. Martin. It’s just our custom, but we don’t expect strangers to conform to it!” I didn’t want that word “stranger” to stick. I said, “Oh, but I’d like to. I mean, I’m not much good at public entertaining, but—” I hesitated, because that was the truest thing I had ever said. I had no more voice than a goat, and of course the only instrument I had ever learned to play was a TV set. But then I remembered something from my childhood. “I’ll tell you what,” I said enthusiastically. “How would you like something appropriate to the season? ‘A Visit from Santa Claus,’ for instance?” Gretchen said snappishly, “What season? We don’t start celebrating—” Her father cut her off. “Please do, Mr. Martin,” he said politely. “We’d enjoy that very much.” I cleared my throat and started:

‘Tis the season of Christmas, and all through the house

‘Tis the season of Christmas, and all through the house
St. Nick and his helpers begin their carouse.
The closets are stuffed and the drawers overflowing
With gift-wrapped remembrances, coming and going.
What a joyous abandon of Christmastime glow!
What a making of lists! What a spending of dough!
So much for—

“Hey!” said Gretchen, looking revolted. “Daddy, that isn’t how——” “Hush!” said Dr. Hargreave grimly. His own expression wasn’t very delighted either, but he said, “Please go on.” I began to wish I’d kept my face shut. They were all looking at me very peculiarly, except for Lilymary, who was conscientiously studying the floor. But it was too late to back out; I went on:

So much for the bedroom, so much for the bath,
So much for the kitchen—too little by half!
Come Westinghouse, Philco! Come Hotpoint, G.E.!
Come Sunbeam! Come Mixmaster! Come to the Tree!
So much for the wardrobe—how shine Daddy’s eyes
As he reaps his Yule harvest of slippers and ties.
So much for the family, so much for the friends,
So much for the neighbors—the list never ends.
A contingency fund for the givers belated
Whose gifts must be hastily reciprocated.
And out of —

Gretchen stood up. “It’s our bedtime,” she said. “Good night, everybody.” Lilymary flared, “It is not! Now be still!” And she looked at me for the first time. “Please go on,” she said, with a furrowed brow. I said hoarsely:

And out of the shops, how they spring with a clatter,
The gifts and appliances words cannot flatter!
The robot dishwasher, the new Frigidaire,
The doll with the didy and curlable hair!
The electrified hairbrush, the black lingerie,
The full-color stereoscopic TV!
Come, Credit Department! Come, Personal Loan!
Come, Mortgage, come Christmas Club, come —

Lilymary turned her face away. I stopped and licked my lips. “That’s all I remember,” I lied. “I—I’m sorry if—” Dr. Hargreave shook himself like a man waking from a nightmare. “It’s getting rather late,” he said to Lilymary. “Perhaps—perhaps our guest would enjoy some coffee before he goes.”

I declined the coffee and Lilymary walked me to the subway. We didn’t talk much. At the subway entrance she firmly took my hand and shook it. “It’s been a pleasant evening,” she said. A wandering group of carolers came by; I gave my contribution to the guitarist. Suddenly angry, I said, “Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” “What?” I gestured after the carolers. “That. Christmas. The whole sentimental, lovable, warmhearted business of Christmas. Lilymary, we’ve only known each other a short time, but—” She interrupted: “Please, Mr. Martin. I—I know what you’re going to say.” She looked terribly appealing there in the Christmassy light of the red and green lights from the Tree that marked the subway entrance. Her pale, straight legs, hardly concealed by the shorts, picked up chromatic highlights; her eyes sparkled. She said, “You see, as Daddy says, we’ve been away from—civilization. Daddy is a missionary, and we’ve been with the Dyaks since I was a little girl. Gretch and Marlene and Corinne were born there. We—we do things differently on Borneo.” She looked up at the Tree over us, and sighed. “It’s very hard to get used to,” she said. “Sometimes I wish we had stayed with the Dyaks.” Then she looked at me. She smiled. “But sometimes,” she said, “I am very glad we’re here.” And she was gone. Ambiguous? Call it merely ladylike. At any rate, that’s what I called it; I took it to be the beginning of the kind of feeling I so desperately wanted her to have; and for the second night in a row I let Haroun’s harem beauties remain silent on their tapes.

Calamity struck. My number-two man, Furness, turned up one morning with a dismal expression and a letter in a government franked envelope. “Greeting!” it began. “You are summoned to serve with a jury of citizens for the term—” “Jury duty!” I groaned. “At a time like this! Wait a minute, Johnny, I’ll call up Mr. Heinemann. He might be able to fix it if—” Furness was shaking his head. “Sorry, Mr. Martin. I already asked him and he tried; but no go. It’s a big case—blindfold sampling of twelve brands of filter cigarettes—and Mr. Heinemann says it wouldn’t look right to try to evade it.” So there was breaking another man in, to add to my troubles. It meant overtime, and that meant that I didn’t have as much time as I would like for Lilymary. Lunch together, a couple of times; odd moments between runs of the gift-wrapping machines; that was about it. But she was never out of my thoughts. There was something about her that appealed to me. A square, yes. Unworldly, yes. Her family? A Victorian horror; but they were her family. I determined to get them on my side, and by and by I began to see how. “Miss Hargreave,” I said formally, coming out of my office. We stepped to one side, in a corner under the delivery chutes. The rumble of goods overhead gave us privacy. I said, “Lilymary, you’re taking this Sunday off, as usual? May I come to visit you?” She hesitated only a second. “Why, of course,” she said firmly. “We’d be delighted. For dinner?” I shook my head: “I have a little surprise for you,” I whispered. She looked alarmed. “Not for you, exactly. For the kids. Trust me, Lilymary. About four o’clock in the afternoon?” I winked at her and went back to my office to make arrangements. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world—it was our busy season, as I say—but what’s the use of being the boss if you can’t pull rank once in a while? So I made it as strong as I could, and Special Services hemmed and hawed and finally agreed that they would work in a special Visit from Santa Claus at the Hargreave home that Sunday afternoon. – Once the kids were on my side, I plotted craftily, it would be easy enough to work the old man around, and what kid could resist a Visit from Santa Claus?

I rang the bell and walked into the queer South-Seas living room as though I belonged there. “Merry Christmas!” I said genially to the six-year-old who let me in. “I hope you kiddies are ready for a treat!” treat!” She looked at me incredulously, and disappeared. I heard her say something shrill and protesting in the next room, and Lilymary’s voice being firm and low-toned. Then Lilymary appeared. “Hello, Mr. Martin,” she said. “George.” “Hello, George.” She sat down and patted the sofa beside her. “Would you like some lemonade?” she asked. “Thank you,” I said. It was pretty hot for the end of September, and the place didn’t appear to be air-conditioned. She called, and the twelve-year-old, Gretchen, turned up with a pitcher and some cookies. I said warningly: “Mustn’t get too full, little girl! There’s a surprise coming.” Lilymary cleared her throat, as her sister set the tray down with a clatter and stamped out of the room. “I—I wish you’d tell me about this surprise, George,” she said. “You know, we’re a little, well, set in our ways, and I wonder—” “Nothing to worry about, Lilymary,” I reassured her. “What is it, a couple of minutes before four? They’ll be here any minute.” “They?” I looked around; the kids were out of sight. “Santa Claus and his helpers,” I whispered. She began piercingly: “Santa Cl—” “Ssh!” I nodded toward the door. “I want it to be a surprise for the kids. Please don’t spoil it for them, Lilymary.” Well, she opened her mouth; but she didn’t get a chance to say anything. The bell rang; Santa Claus and his helpers were right on time. “Lilymary!” shrieked the twelve-year-old, opening the door. “Look!” You couldn’t blame the kid for being excited. “Ho-ho-ho,” boomed Santa, rolling inside. “Oh, hello, Mr. Martin. This the place?” “Certainly, Santa,” I said, beaming. “Bring it in, boys.” The twelve-year-old cried, “Corinne! Marlene! This you got to see!” There was an odd tone to her voice, but I didn’t pay much at- tention. It wasn’t my party any more. I retired, smiling, to a corner of the room while the Santa Claus helpers began coming in with their sacks of gear on their shoulders. It was “Ho-ho-ho, little girl!” and “Merry Christmas, everybody!” until you couldn’t hear yourself think. Lilymary was biting her lip, staring at me. The Santa tapped her on the shoulder. “Where’s the kitchen, lady?” he asked. “That door? Okay, Wynken—go on in and get set up. Nod, you go down and hurry up the sound truck, then you can handle the door. The rest of you helpers—” he surveyed the room briefly— “start lining up your Christmas Goodies there, and there. Now hop to it, boys! We got four more Visits to make this afternoon yet.” You never saw a crew of Christmas Gnomes move as fast as them. Snap, and the Tree was up, complete with its tinsel stars and gray colored Order Forms and Credit Application Blanks. Snip, and two of the helpers were stringing the red and green lights that led from the Hargreave living room to the sound truck outside. Snip-snap, and you could hear the sound truck pealing the joyous strains of All I Want for Christmas Is Two of Everything in the street, and twos and threes of the neighborhood children were beginning to appear at the door, blinking and ready for the fun. The kitchen helpers were ladling out mugs of cocoa and colored-sugar Christmas cookies and collecting the dimes and quarters from the kids; the demonstrator helpers were showing the kids the toys and trinkets from their sacks; and Santa himself was seated on his glittering throne. “Ho-ho-ho, my boy,” he was saying. “And where does your daddy work this merry Christmas season?” I was proud of them. There wasn’t a helper there who couldn’t have walked into Saul & Cappell or any other store in town, and walked out a Santa with a crew of his own. But that’s the way we do things at the Emporium, skilled hands and high paychecks, and you only have to look at our sales records to see that it pays off. Well, I wanted to stay and watch the fun, but Sunday’s a bad day to take the afternoon off; I slipped out and headed back to the store. I put in a hard four hours, but I made it a point to be down at the Special Services division when the crews came straggling in for their checkout. The crew I was interested in was the last to report, naturally—isn’t that always the way? Santa was obviously tired; I let him shuck his uniform and turn his sales slips in to the cashier before I tackled him. “How did it go?” I asked anxiously. “Did Miss Hargreave—I mean the grown-up Miss Hargreave—did she say anything?” He looked at me accusingly. “You,” he whined. “Mr. Martin, you shouldn’t have run out on us like that. How we supposed to keep up a schedule when you throw us that kind of a curve, Mr. Martin?” It was no way for a Santa to be talking to a department head, but I overlooked it. The man was obviously upset. “What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Those Hargreaves! Honestly, Mr. Martin, you’d think they didn’t want us there, the way they acted! The kids were bad enough. But when the old man came home—wow! I tell you, Mr. Martin, I been eleven Christmases in the Department, and I never saw a family with less Christmas spirit than those Hargreaves!” The cashier was yelling for the cash receipts so he could lock up his ledgers for the night, so I let the Santa go. But I had plenty to think about as I went back to my own department, wondering about what he had said.

I didn’t have to wonder long. Just before closing, one of the office girls waved me in from where I was checking out a new Counselor, and I answered the phone call. It was Lilymary’s father. Mad? He was blazing. I could hardly make sense out of most of what he said. It was words like “perverting the Christian festival” and “selling out the Saviour” and a lot of stuff I just couldn’t follow at all. But the part he finished up with, that I could understand. “I want you to know, Mr. Martin,” he said in clear, crisp, emphatic tones, “that you are no longer a welcome caller at our home. It pains me to have to say this, sir. As for Lilymary, you may consider this her resignation, to be effective at once!” “But,” I said, “but—” But I was talking to a dead line; he had hung up. And that was the end of that.

Personnel called up after a couple of days and wanted to know what to do with Lilymary’s severance pay. I told them to mail her the check; then I had a second thought and asked them to send it up to me. I mailed it to her myself, with a little note apologizing for what I’d done wrong—whatever it was. But she didn’t even answer. October began, and the pace stepped up. Every night I crawled home, bone-weary, turned on my dreamster and slept like a log. I gave the machine a real workout; I even had the buyer in the Sleep Shoppe get me rare, out-of-print tapes on special order—Last Days of Petronius Arbiter, and Casanova’s Diary, and The Polly Adler Story, and so on—until the buyer began to leer when she saw me coming. But it didn’t do any good. While I slept I was surrounded with the loveliest of them all; but when I woke the face of Lilymary Hargreave was in my mind’s eye.

October. The store was buzzing. National cost of living was up .00013, but our rate of sale was up .00021 over the previous year. The store bosses were beaming, and bonuses were in the air for everybody. November. The tide was at its full, and little wavelets began to ebb backward. Housewares was picked clean, and the manufacturers only laughed as we implored them for deliveries; but Home Appliances was as dead as the January lull. Our overall rate of sale slowed down microscopically, but it didn’t slow down the press of work. It made things tougher, in fact, because we were pushing twice as hard on the items we could supply, coaxing the customers off the ones that were running short. Bad management? No. Looking at my shipment figures, we’d actually emptied the store four times in seven weeks—better than fifty per cent turnover a week. Our July purchase estimates had been off only slightly—two persons fewer out of each hundred bought airconditioners than we had expected, one and a half persons more out of each hundred bought kitchenware. Saul & Cappell had been out of kitchenware except for spot deliveries, sold the day they arrived, ever since late September! Heinemann called me into his office. “George,” he said, “I just checked your backlog. The unfilled order list runs a little over eleven thousand. I want to tell you that I’m surprised at the way you and your department have—” “Now, Mr. Heinemann!” I burst out. “That isn’t fair! We’ve been putting in overtime every night, every blasted one of us! Eleven thousand’s pretty good, if you ask me!” He looked surprised. “My point exactly, George,” he said. “I was about to compliment you.” I felt so high. I swallowed. “Uh, thanks,” I said. “I mean, I’m sorry I—” “Forget it, George.” Heinemann was looking at me thoughtfully. “You’ve got something on your mind, don’t you?” “Well—” “Is it that girl?” “Girl?” I stared at him. “Who said anything about a girl?” “Come off it,” he said genially. “You think it isn’t all over the store?” He glanced at his watch. “George,” he said, “I never interfere in employees’ private lives. You know that. But if it’s that girl that’s bothering you, why don’t you marry her for a while? It might be just the thing you need. Come on now, George, confess. When were you married last? Three years? Five years ago?” I looked away. “I never was,” I admitted. That jolted him. “Never?” He studied me thoughtfully for a second. “You aren’t—?” “No, no, no!” I said hastily. “Nothing like that. It’s just that, well, it’s always seemed like a pretty big step to take.” He relaxed again. “Ah, you kids,” he said genially. “Always afraid of getting hurt, eh? Well, I’ll mind my own business, if that’s the way you want it. But if I were you, George, I’d go get her.” That was that. I went back to work; but I kept right on thinking about what Heinemann had said. After all. . . why not?

I called, “Lilymary!” She faltered and half-turned. I had counted on that. You could tell she wasn’t brought up in this country; from the age of six on, our girls learn Lesson One: When you’re walking alone at night, don’t stop. She didn’t stop long. She peered into the doorway and saw me, and her expression changed as though I had hit her with a club. “George,” she said, and hesitated, and walked on. Her hair was a shimmering rainbow in the Christmas lights. We were only a few doors from her house. I glanced, half apprehensive, at the door, but no Father Hargreave was there to scowl. I followed her and said, “Please, Lilymary. Can’t we just talk for a moment?” She faced me. “Why?” “To—” I swallowed. “To let me apologize.” She said gently, “No apology is necessary, George. We’re different breeds of cats. No need to apologize for that.” “Please.” “Well,” she said. And then, “Why not?” We found a bench in the little park across from the subway entrance. It was late; enormous half-tracks from the Sanitation Department were emptying trash cans, sprinkler trucks came by and we had to raise our feet off the ground. She said once, “I really ought to get back. I was only going to the store.” But she stayed. Well, I apologized, and she listened like a lady. And like a lady she said, again, “There’s nothing to apologize for.” And that was that, and I still hadn’t said what I had come for. I didn’t know how. I brooded over the problem. With the rumble of the trash trucks and the roar of their burners, conversation was difficult enough anyhow. But even under those handicaps, I caught a phrase from Lilymary. “—back to the jungle,” she was saying. “It’s home for us, George. Father can’t wait to get back, and neither can the girls.” I interrupted her. “Get back?” She glanced at me. “That’s what I said.” She nodded at the Sanitation workers, baling up the enormous drifts of Christmas cards, thrusting them into the site burners. “As soon as the mails open up,” she said, “and Father gets his visa. It was mailed a week ago, they say. They tell me that in the Christmas rush it might take two or three weeks more to get to us, though.” Something was clogging up my throat. All I could say was, “Why?” Lilymary sighed. “It’s where we live, George,” she explained. “This isn’t right for us. We’re mission brats and we belong out in the field, spreading the Good News. . . . Though Father says you people need it more than the Dyaks.” She looked quickly into my eyes. “I mean—” I waved it aside. I took a deep breath. “Lilymary,” I said, all in a rush, “will you marry me?” Silence, while Lilymary looked at me. “Oh, George,” she said, after a moment. And that was all; but I was able to translate it; the answer was no.

Still, proposing marriage is something like buying a lottery ticket; you may not win the grand award, but there are consolation prizes. Mine was a date. Lilymary stood up to her father, and I was allowed in the house. I wouldn’t say I was welcomed, but Dr. Hargreave was polite— distant, but polite. He offered me coffee, he spoke of the dream superstitions of the Dyaks and old days in the Long House, and when Lilymary was ready to go he shook my hand at the door. We had dinner. . . I asked her—but as a piece of conversation, not a begging plea from the heart—I asked her why they had to go back. The Dyaks, she said; they were Father’s people; they needed him. Alter Mother’s death, Father had wanted to come back to America . . . but it was wrong for them. He was going back. The girls, naturally, were going with him. We danced. . . . I kissed her, in the shadows, when it was growing late. She hesitated, but she kissed me back. I resolved to destroy my dreamster; its ersatz ecstasies were pale. “There,” she said, as she drew back, and her voice was gentle, with a note of laughter. “I just wanted to show you. It isn’t all hymnsinging back on Borneo, you know.” I reached out for her again, but she drew back, and the laughter was gone. She glanced at her watch. “Time for me to go, George,” she said. “We start packing tomorrow.” “But—” “It’s time to go, George,” she said. And she kissed me at her door; but she didn’t invite me in. I stripped the tapes off my dreamster and threw them away. But hours later, after the fiftieth attempt to get to sleep, and the twentieth solitary cigarette, I got up and turned on the light and looked for them again. They were pale; but they were all I had.

Party Week! The store was nearly bare. A messenger from the Credit Department came staggering in with a load of files just as the closing gong sounded. He dropped them on my desk. “Thank God!” he said fervently. “Guess you won’t be bothering with these tonight, eh, Mr. Martin?” But I searched through them all the same. He looked at me wonderingly, but the clerks were breaking out the bottles and the runners from the lunchroom were bringing up sandwiches, and he drifted away. I found the credit check I had requested. “Co-Maker Required!” was stamped at the top, and triply underlined in red, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I hunted through the text until I found what I wanted to know: “Subject is expected to leave this country within forty-eight hours. Subject’s employer is organized and incorporated under laws of State of New York as a religious mission group. No earnings record on file. Caution: Subject would appear a bad credit risk, due to—” I read no farther. Forty-eight hours! There was a scrawl at the bottom of the page, in the Credit Manager’s own handwriting: “George, what the devil are you up to? This is the fourth check we made on these people!” It was true enough; but it would be the last. In forty-eight hours they would be gone. I was dull at the Christmas Party. But it had been a splendid Christmas for the store, and in an hour everyone was too drunk to notice.

I decided to skip Party Week. I stayed at home the next morning, staring out the window. It had begun to snow, and the cleaners were dragging away old Christmas trees. It’s always a letdown when Christmas is over; but my mood had nothing to do with the season, only with Lilymary and the numbers of miles from her & to Borneo. I circled the date in red on my calendar: December 25th. By the 26th they would be gone. . But I couldn’t, repeat couldn’t, let her go so easily. It wasn’t that I wanted to try again, and be rebuffed again; it was not a matter of choice. I had to see her. Nothing else, suddenly, had any meaning. So I made the long subway trek out there, knowing it was a fool’s errand. But what kind of an errand could have been more appropriate for me? They weren’t home, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I banged on the door of the next apartment, and got a surly, suspicious, whatdo-you-want-with-them? inspection from the woman who lived there. But she thought they might possibly be down at the Community Center on the next block. And they were. The Community Center was a big yellow-brick recreation hail; it had swimming pools and pingpong tables and all kinds of odds and ends to keep the kids off the streets. It was that kind of a neighborhood. It also had a meeting hall in the basement, and there were the Hargreaves, all of them, along with a couple of dozen other people. None of them were young, except the Hargreave girls. The hall had a dusty, storeroom quality to it, as though it wasn’t used much—and in fact, I saw, it still had a small Christmas tree standing in it. Whatever else they had, they did not have a very efficient cleanup squad. I came to the door to the hall and stood there, looking around. Someone was playing a piano, and they were having a singing party. The music sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recognize the words— Adeste fideles, Laeti triumphantes. Venite, venite in Bethlehem.

The girls were sitting together, in the front row; their father wasn’t with them, but I saw why. He was standing at a little lectern in the front of the hall.

Natum videte, regem angelorum. Venite adoremus, venite adoremus—— I recognized the tune then; it was a slow, draggy-beat steal from that old-time favorite, Christmas-Tree Mambo. It didn’t sound too bad, though, as they finished with a big major chord from the piano and all fifteen or twenty voices going. Then Hargreave started to talk. I didn’t listen. I was too busy watching the back of Lilymary’s head. I’ve always had pretty low psi, though, and she didn’t turn around. Something was bothering me. There was a sort of glow from up front. I took my eyes off Lilymary’s blond head, and there was Dr. Hargreave, radiant; I blinked and looked again, and it was not so radiant. A trick of the light, coming through the basement windows onto his own blond hair, I suppose, but it gave me a curious feeling for a moment. I must have moved, because he caught sight of me. He stumbled over a word, but then he went on. But that was enough. After a moment Lilymary’s head turned, and her eyes met mine. She knew I was there. I backed away from the door and sat down on the steps coming down from the entrance. Sooner or later she would be out.

It wasn’t long at all. She came toward me with a question in her eye. She was all by herself; inside the hail, her father was still talking. I stood up straight and said it all. “Lilymary,” I said, “I can’t help it, I want to marry you. I’ve done everything wrong, but I didn’t mean to. I—I don’t even want it conditional, Lilymary, I want it for life. Here or Borneo, I don’t care which. I only care about one thing, and that’s you.” It was funny—I was trying to tell her I loved her, and I was standing stiff and awkward, talking in about the same tone of voice I’d use to tell a stock boy he was fired. But she understood. I probably didn’t have to say a word, she would have understood anyhow. She started to speak, and changed her mind, and started again, and finally got out, “What would you do in Borneo?” And then, so soft that I hardly knew I was hearing it, she added, “Dear.” Dear! It was like the first time Heinemann came in and called me “Department Head!” I felt nine feet tall. I didn’t answer her. I reached out and I kissed her, and it wasn’t any wonder that I didn’t know we weren’t alone until I heard her father cough, not more than a yard away. I jumped, but Lilymary turned and looked at him, perfectly calm. “You ought to be conducting the service, Father!” she scolded him. He nodded his big fair head. “Doctor Mausner can pronounce the Benediction without me,” he said. “I should be there but—well, He has plenty of things to forgive all of us already; one more isn’t going to bother Him. Now, what’s this?” “George has asked me to marry him.” “And?” She looked at me. “I—” she began, and stopped. I said, “I love her.” He looked at me too, and then he sighed. “George,” he said after a moment, “I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong, for the first time in my life. Maybe I’ve been selfish when I asked Lilymary to go back with me and the girls. I didn’t mean it that way, but I don’t deny I wanted it. I don’t know. But——” He smiled, and it was a big, warm smile. “But there’s something I do know. I know Lilymary; and I can trust her to make up her own mind.” He patted her lightly. “I’ll see you after the service,” he said to me, and left us. Back in the hail, through the door he opened, I could hear all the voices going at once. “Let’s go inside and pray, George,” said Lilymary, and her whole heart and soul was on her face as she looked at me, with love and anxiousness. I only hesitated a moment. Pray? But it meant Lilymary, and that meant—well, everything. So I went in. And we were all kneeling, and Lilymary coached me through the words; and I prayed. And, do you know?—I’ve never regretted it.


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