"Wouldn't you, Mr. Tilman?"
"Of course. But--well, yes, I suppose I do see, in a way. Let's go see Bennie-boy."
So Ben Tilman went into the nursery and enjoyed every second of a fast fifteen-minute roughhouse with his round-faced, laughing, chubby son and heir. No doubt it was very bad, just after supper. But Nana, with a rather humanly anxious restraint, confined herself to an unobtrusive look of disapproval.
He left Bennie giggling and doubtless upset, at least to a point of uneagerness for Nana's bedtime story about Billie the oldtime newsboy, who sold the Brooklyn Bridge.
So then he was run through a fast ten-minute shower, shave and change by Valet. He floated downstairs just as Betty came out of the cocktail lounge to say, "Code 462112 on the approach indicator. Must be the Stoddards. They always get every place first, in time for an extra drink."
"Fred and Alice, yes. But damn their taste for gin, don't let Barboy keep the cork in the vermouth all evening. I like a touch of vermouth. I wonder if maybe I shouldn't--"
"No, you shouldn't mix the cocktails yourself and scandalize everybody. You know perfectly well Barboy really does do better anyway."
"Well, maybe. Everything all set, hon? Sorry I was late."
"No trouble here. I just fed Robutler the base program this morning and spent the rest of the day planning my side of our Sell. How to tantalize the girls, pique the curiosity without giving it away. But you know--" she laughed a little ruefully--"I sort of miss not having even the shopping to do. Sometimes it hardly seems as though you need a wife at all."
Ben slid an arm around her waist. "Selling isn't the only thing robots can't do, sugar." He pulled her close.
"Ben! They're at the door."
They were, and then in the door, oh-ing and ah-ing over this and that. And complimenting Barboy on the martinis. Then the Wilsons came and the Bartletts and that was it.
"Three couples will be right," Ben had analyzed it. "Enough so we can let them get together and build up each others' curiosity but not too many for easy control. People that don't know us so well they might be likely to guess the gimmick. We'll let them stew all evening while they enjoy the Country Gentleman House-Warming hospitality. Then, very casually, we toss it out and let it lie there in front of them. They will be sniffing, ready to nibble. The clincher will drive them right in. I'd stake my sales reputation on it." If it matters a damn, he added. But silently.
They entertained three couples at their house-warming party. It was a delightful party, a credit to Ben, Betty and the finest built-in house robots the mind of Amalgamated could devise.
By ten o'clock they had dropped a dozen or more random hints, but never a sales pitch. Suspense was building nicely when Betty put down an empty glass and unobtrusively pushed the button to cue Nana. Perfect timing. They apologized to the guests, "We're ashamed to be so old-fashioned but we feel better if we look in on the boy when he wakes in the night. It keeps him from forgetting us."
Then they floated off upstairs together, ostensibly to see Nana and little Bennie.
Fred Stoddard: "Some place they have here, eh? Off-beat. A little too advanced for my taste, this single dwelling idea, but maybe--Ben sure must have landed something juicy with Amalgamated to afford this. What the devil is he pushing, anyway?"
Scoville Wilson (shrug): "Beats me. You know, before dinner I cornered him at the bar to see if I could slip in a word or two of sell. Damned if he didn't sign an order for my Cyclo-sell Junior Tape Library without even a C level resistance. Then he talked a bit about the drinks and I thought sure he was pushing that new model Barboy. I was all set to come back with a sincere 'think it over'--and then he took a bottle from the Barboy, added a dash of vermouth to his drink and walked off without a word of sell. He always was an odd one."
Lucy Wilson (turns from woman talk with the other two wives): "Oh no! I knew it wasn't the Barboy set. They wouldn't have him set so slow. Besides didn't you hear the way she carried on about the nursery and that lovely Nana? That must have been a build-up, but Ben goofed his cue to move in on Sco and me for a close. Doesn't Amalgamated handle those nurseries?"
Tom Bartlett: "Amalgamated makes almost anything. That's the puzzle. I dunno--but it must be something big. He has to hit us with something, doesn't he?"
Belle Bartlett: "Who ever heard of a party without a sell?"
Nancy Stoddard: "Who ever heard of a party going past ten without at least a warm-up pitch? And Betty promised Fred to send both Ben and Bennie to the Clinic for their Medchecks. You know we have the newest, finest diagnosticians--"
Fred Stoddard: "Nancy!"
Nancy Stoddard: "Oh, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be selling you folks at their party, should I? Come to think, you're all signed with Fred anyway, aren't you? Well, about Ben, I think--"
Lucy Wilson: "Sh-h-h! Here they come."
Smiling, charming--and still not an order form in sight--Ben and Betty got back to their guests. Another half hour. Barboy was passing around with nightcaps. Lucy Wilson nervously put a reducegar to her sophisticated, peppermint-striped lips.
Quickly Ben Tilman was on his feet. He pulled a small, metal cylinder from his pocket with a flourish and held it out on his open palm toward Lucy. A tiny robot Statue of Liberty climbed from the cylinder, walked across Ben's hand, smiled, curtsied and reached out to light the reducegar with her torch, piping in a high, thin voice, "Amalgamated reducegars are cooler, lighter, finer."
"Ben! How simply darling!"
"Do you like it? It's a new thing from Amalgamated NovelDiv. You can program it for up to a hundred selective sell phrases, audio or visio key. Every salesman should have one. Makes a marvelous gift, and surprisingly reasonable."
"So that's it, Ben. I just love it!"
"Good! It's yours, compliments of Amalgamated."
"But--then you're not selling them? Well, what on earth--?"
"Damn it, Ben," Fred Stoddard broke in, "come on, man, out with it. What in hell are you selling? You've given us the shakes. What is it? The Barboy set? It's great. If I can scrape up the down payment, I'll--"
"After we furnish a nursery with a decent Nana, Fred Stoddard," Nancy snapped, "and get a second soar-kart. Ben isn't selling Barboys anyway, are you. Ben? It is that sweet, sweet Nana, isn't it? And I do want one, the whole nursery, Playmate and all, girl-programmed of course, for our Polly."
"Is it the nursery, Betty?" Lucy pitched in her credit's worth. "Make him tell us, darling. We have enjoyed everything so much, the dinner, the Tri-deo, this whole lovely, lovely place of yours. Certainly the house warming has been perfectly charming."
"And that's it," said Ben smiling, a sheaf of paper forms suddenly in his hand.
"The house, yes. Amalgamated's Country Gentleman Estate, complete, everything in it except Bennie, Betty and me. Your equity in your Center co-op can serve as down payment, easy three-generation terms, issue insurance. Actually, I can show you how, counting in your entertainment, vacation, incidental, and living expenses, the Country Gentleman will honestly cost you less."
"How simply too clever!"
Ben let it rest there. It was enough. Fred Stoddard, after a short scuffle with Scoville Wilson for the pen, signed the contract with a flourish. Sco followed.
"There now, Ben," said Betty, holding Bennie a little awkwardly in her arms in the soar-kart. They had moved out so the Stoddards could move right in. Now they were on their way in to their reserved suite at Amalgamated's Guest-ville. "You were absolutely marvellous. Imagine selling all three of them!"
"There wasn't anything to it, actually."
"Ben, how can you say that? Nobody else could have done it. It was a sales masterpiece. And just think. Now salesmen all over the hemisphere are going to follow your sales plan. Doesn't it make you proud? Happy? Ben, you aren't going to be like that again?"
No, of course he wasn't. He was pleased and proud. Anyway, the Old Man would be, and that, certainly, was something. A man had to feel good about winning the approval of Amalgamated's grand Old Man. And it did seem to make Betty happy.
But the actual selling of the fool house and even the two other, identical houses on the other side of the hill--he just couldn't seem to get much of a glow over it. He had done it; and what had he done? It was the insurance and the toothbrushes all over again, and the old nervous, sour feeling inside.
"At least we do have a vacation trip coming out of it, hon. The O.M. practically promised it yesterday, if our sell sold. We could--"
"--go back to that queer new 'Do It Yourself' camp up on the lake you insisted on dragging me to the last week of our vacation last summer. Ben, really!" He was going to be like that. She knew it.
"Well, even you admitted it was some fun."
"Oh, sort of, I suppose. For a little while. Once you got used to the whole place without one single machine that could think or do even the simplest little thing by itself. So, well, almost like being savages. Do you think it would be safe for Bennie? We can't watch him all the time, you know."
"People used to manage in the old days. And remember those people, the Burleys, who were staying up there?"
"That queer, crazy bunch who went there for a vacation when the Camp was first opened and then just stayed? Honestly, Ben! Surely you're not thinking of--"
"Oh, nothing like that. Just a vacation. Only--"
Only those queer, peculiar people, the Burleys had seemed so relaxed and cheerful. Grandma and Ma Burley cleaning, washing, cooking on the ancient electric stove; little Donnie, being a nuisance, poking at the keys on his father's crude, manual typewriter, a museum piece; Donnie and his brothers wasting away childhood digging and piling sand on the beach, paddling a boat and actually building a play house. It was mad. People playing robots. And yet, they seemed to have a wonderful time while they were doing it.
"But how do you keep staying here?" he had asked Buck Burley, "Why don't they put you out?"
"Who?" asked Buck. "How? Nobody can sell me on leaving. We like it here. No robot can force us out. Here we are. Here we stay."
They pulled into the Guest-ville ramp. Bennie was fussy; the nursery Nana was strange to him. On impulse, Betty took him in to sleep in their room, ignoring the disapproving stares of both the Nana and the Roboy with their things.
They were tired, let down. They went to bed quietly.
In the morning Betty was already up when Ben stumbled out of bed. "Hi," she said, nervously cheerful. "The house Nanas all had overload this morning and I won't stand for any of those utility components with Bennie. So I'm taking care of him myself."
Bennie chortled and drooled vita-meal at his high-chair, unreprimanded. Ben mustered a faint smile and turned to go dial a shave, cool shower and dress at Robather.
That done, he had a bite of breakfast. He felt less than top-sale, but better. Last night had gone well. The Old Man would give them a pre-paid vacation clearance to any resort in the world or out. Why gloom?
He rubbed Bennie's unruly hair, kissed Betty and conveyed over from Guest-ville to office.
Message-sec, in tone respect-admiration A, told him the Old Man was waiting for him. Susan, the human receptionist in the outer office, favored him with a dazzling smile. There was a girl who could sell; and had a product of her own, too.
The Old Man was at his big, oak desk but, a signal honor, he got up and came half across the room to grab Ben's hand and shake it. "Got the full report, son. Checked the tapes already. That's selling, boy! I'm proud of you. Tell you what, Ben. Instead of waiting for a sales slack, I'm going to move you and that sweet little wife of yours right into a spanking new, special Country Gentleman unit I had in mind for myself. And a nice, fat boost in your credit rating has already gone down to accounting. Good? Good. Now, Ben, I have a real, artistic sales challenge that is crying for your talent."
"Sir? Thank you. But, sir, there is the matter of the vacation--"
"Vacation? Sure, Ben. Take a vacation anytime. But right now it seems to the Old Man you're on a hot selling streak. I don't want to see you get off the track, son; your interests are mine. And wait till you get your teeth into this one. Books, Ben boy. Books! People are spending all their time sitting in on Tri-deo, not reading. People should read more, Ben. Gives them that healthy tired feeling. Now we have the product. We have senior Robo-writers with more circuits than ever before. All possible information, every conceivable plot. Maybe a saturation guilt type campaign to start--but it's up to you, Ben. I don't care how you do it, but move books."
"Books, eh? Well, now." Ben was interested. "Funny thing, sir, but that ties in with something I was thinking about just last night."
"You have an angle? Good boy!"
"Yes, sir. Well, it is a wild thought maybe, but last summer when I was on vacation I met a man up at that new camp and--well, I know it sounds silly, but he was writing a book."
"Just what I thought, sir. But I read some of it and, I don't know, it had a sort of a feel about it. Something new, sir, it might catch on."
"All right, all right. That's enough. You're a salesman. You've sold me."
"On the book?" Ben was surprised.
"Quit pulling an old man's leg, Ben. I'm sold on your needing a vacation. I'll fill out your vacation pass right now." The Old Man, still a vigorous, vital figure, turned and walked back to his Desk-sec. "Yes sir," said the secretarial voice, "got it. Vacation clearance for Tilman, Ben, any resort."
"And family," said Ben.
"And family. Very good, sir."
The Old Man made his sign on the pass and said heavily, "All right then, Ben. That's it. Maybe if you go back up to that place for a few days and see that psycho who was writing a book again, perhaps you'll realize how impractical it is."
"But sir! I'm serious about that book. It really did have--" he broke off.
The Old Man was sitting there, face blank, withdrawn. Ben could feel he wasn't even listening. That damned hearing aid of his. The Old Man had cut it off. Suddenly, unreasoningly, Ben was furious. He stood by the huge desk and he reached across toward the hearing aid on the Old Man's chest to turn up the volume. The Old Man looked up and saw Ben's hand stretching out.
A sudden look of fear came into his china blue, clear eyes but he made no move. He sat frozen in his chair.
Ben hesitated a second. "What--?" But he didn't have to ask. He knew.
And he also knew what he was going to do.
"No!" said the Old Man. "No, Ben. I've only been trying to help; trying to serve your best interests the best way I know. Ben, you mustn't--"
But Ben moved forward.
He took the plastic box on the Old Man's chest and firmly cut the switch.
The Old Man, the Robot Old Man, went lifeless and slumped back in his chair as Ben stretched to cut off the Desk-sec. Then he picked up his vacation clearance.
"Robots can't sell, eh?" he said to the dead machine behind the desk. "Well, you couldn't sell me that time, could you, Old Man?"
Clumsily, rustily, Ben whistled a cheerful little off-key tune to himself. Hell, they could do anything at all--except sell.
"You can't fool some of the people all of the time," he remarked over his shoulder to the still, silent figure of the Old Man as he left the office, "it was a man said that." He closed the door softly behind him.
Betty would be waiting.
Betty was waiting. Her head ached as she bounced Bennie, the child of Ben, of herself and of an unknown egg cell from an anonymous ovary, on her knees. Betty 3-RC-VIII, secret, wife-style model, the highest development of the art of Robotics had known instantly when Ben cut the Old Man's switch. She had half expected it. But it made her headache worse.
"But damn my programming!" She spoke abruptly, aloud, nervously fingering the locket around her neck. "Damn it and shift circuit. He's right! He is my husband and he is right and I'm glad. I'm glad we're going to the camp and I'm going to help him stay."
After all, why shouldn't a man want to do things just as much as a robot? He had energy, circuits, feelings too. She knew he did.
For herself, she loved her Ben and Bennie. But still just that wasn't enough occupation. She was glad they were going to the new isolation compound for non-psychotic but unstable, hyper-active, socially dangerous individual humans. At the camp there would be things to do.
At the camp they would be happy.
All at once the headache that had been bothering her so these past months was gone. She felt fine and she smiled at little Bennie. "Bennie-boy," she said, kissing his smooth, untroubled baby forehead. "Daddy's coming." Bennie laughed and started to reach for the locket around Mommy's neck. But just then the door opened and he jumped down to run and meet his daddy.