Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to be a writer. Even as a child he wrote fairy tales, which his mother thought excellent but otherwise were not much read. In high school he yearned after girls but was afraid of them and learned that a book, to be significant, must have a message. As it happened he had one: his first novel, written at seventeen in a dun-colored YMCA room during a winter of bitter loneliness, re?ported that love is a bridge. In college he studied philosophy; became, in turn, a Marxist, existentialist, pacifist, and militant organizer for SNCC; and wrote a utopia announcing that narcissism is overcome by sacrifice. At a voter? registration drive in Mississippi he met Eloise, a school teacher from Wisconsin who seemed to know all his passions and secrets, and married her under a magnolia tree on a day when seventeen students from Union Theological were forced to drink castor oil and driven naked out of Selma. Eloise was practical and strong-willed and whisked him back to Madison where he became vice-president her father’s cheese factory. The following year a second novel disclosed that true love dies and that loneliness, though it may have respite, has no end. “I’m not a cheese?maker,” he said, “I’m a writer”; quit the business; and wrote a play in six acts called The Road, with a cast of forty-seven and a playing time of six hours, which made the point that seeking is better than finding. Divorced, penniless, still unpublished, he stuck with his chosen vocation. A poem in free verse of thirteen thousand lines asserted creativity to be the principle of life-perhaps of existence in general, for he found an analogue in the orbit of electrons, the trajectory of stars. Both his parents died of cancer; he lived alone, forgot his vitamins, became thin, and wrote a monograph declaring that creativity is in fact impossible. His name was Rainer, and he marked his works with the sign of a fox.
Everything he wrote was rejected; all his messages stayed in his trunk; and his final work-an autobiography in three volumes asserting that everything, especially the writing of books, is absurd-was not even submitted to a publisher. He himself wrote the review, found flaws, but pronounced it a masterpiece, then burned the review, the autobiography, and the trunk.
Still he lived, and ate, and one day being particularly hungry he looked through job notices and saw “Writer Wanted.” What the hell, he thought, so long as it pays.
The address led him through tunnels, past factories, warehouses, across railroad tracks to a huge building with a towering chimney, a column of black smoke, a muted hum, and a curious sweet smell. A wall of blackened brick rose up from the very edge of the street, unbroken for fifty feet, to a row of tiny windows. At regular intervals gargoyles extended open mouths from the red tile roof: griffins, snakes, satyrs, dragons–all convulsed in silent, stony shrieks. There was no sidewalk; Rainer walked in the street, dodged motorcycles, looked up at the black wall, until he came to a small door. A bronze plaque announced “Mack Confections, Inc.” Here the hum was louder, like a cataract deep in the earth. He hesitated, looked without purpose at his watch, glanced up the now empty street, entered.
In a dusty office he was lulled by the roar, was almost asleep when a tall, heavy man with red hair, in a pink shirt with open collar, burst into the room and attacked him with an interview. “Can you spell?” the man shouted.
“Spell ‘fate.’ ” Rainer passed this test without difficulty. “All right, my boy,” the man said, rubbing his beefy hands, “give us a bit of sententious wisdom. You know what ‘sententious’ means?”
“Out with it them.”
The bloodshot pig-eyes were no more than three inches away; the nose was neon; the hair stood on end; the breath was pure bourbon. Rainer turned away. A torn print of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” flapped on the dusty wall. “Absurd!” Rainer murmured.
“Excellent!” the man roared. “You’re hired.”
“To do what?”
“This is a fortune-cookie factory; you write the for?tunes. ”
The man was Mr. Mack, the owner, who took Rainer into a long, high cavern of a room, past vats of flour and mixing machines. A man measuring anise raised a hand in greeting; a pretty girl pouring sugar wiped her forehead and smiled. The roar grew louder; there was a clicking and a stirring, and now a huge belt carried masses of dough be?tween rollers; in a sheet ten feet wide the dough passed onto a conveyor of shimmering steel balls between which thousands of whirling knives suddenly rose up and cut the sheet into oval fragments that danced like leaves on a stream and flowed on into a great machine which was clicking and clacking and spewing out ribbons of green paper. High up on this machine was a dais with a keyboard, and there sat a wretched Asian darting panicky glances over his shoulder as he hunted and pecked at the keys. On the other side of the machine the leaves of dough emerged, each bearing an inch of green tape; and now, suddenly, ten thousand steel fingers reached out of the trembling stream, folded the dough over the fortunes, and gently bent them double just as the river disappeared into an oven.
Mr. Mack picked up a streamer of tape, read, and exploded. “You’re fired!” he yelled, grabbing the Asian by the shirt and pulling him off the stool. Rainer looked at the tape still spewing from the machine: Freenship is the tresur of man, it announced, and repeated it every inch.
“You sonofabitch!” Mr. Mack yelled, shaking him, “You’re ruining me. Get the hell out of here!” The man fled. Mr. Mack banged his fist on the stop button, and the press fell silent though the river of cookies still flowed. “Stop the Line!” he yelled, but no one heard, and he yelled ten more times and was quite hoarse, his face purple, before the line came to rest, and the room was quiet. He mounted the dais, glared about and mopped his face with a red handkerchief.
“Now I’ll show you how to do it,” he said to Rainer. “C’mere. This is Tall Betsy,” he said, patting the machine, “a lady and temperamental.” He sat at the keyboard, ex?tended his arms like a pianist, threw back his head and dosed his eyes. A group of curious workers gathered. After a few moments succubus to the muse Mr. Mack lurched forward, typing, and the green tape sputtered forth: Capital lies behind your eyes; invest it in the common stock of work. “Like that,” he said shyly, standing up and tearing off the tape. His face was a mixture of cunning and simplicity, of ruthlessness and sentimentality. “Only make it more goddamned interesting,” he added, regaining his shouting voice. “Anybody finishing a Chinese meal is Unsatisfied, but don’t know what they want. You give it to ’em! Something to wake them up. That weak tea won’t do it. You do it. Sit down!” Rainer sat and Mr. Mack pressed on his shoulders with both hands: “Go!” he shouted.
Rainer brushed away the hands. “Give me room,” he said.
Looking out over the crowd he saw a girl of such somber beauty in her wide still eyes, such store of passion in her broad soft mouth, that he felt the fish hook in his throat and the great mushroom cloud blowing up in his heart. He caught himself in time, grinned at her, turned to the key?board and wrote: A pretty girl is the mirage of love on the desert of loneliness. Traveler beware! The press coughed, jerked, gave out a puff of smoke, then clickety-clacked and spewed out the tape.
Mr. Mack caught it up instantly, his lips moving as he read.
“Excellent!” he roared. “Excellent!” and pressed a button marked 10,000, which directed the machine to print that many. “Hey! you peasants!” he called, throwing the tape, “Look. We got a writer!” The crowd read and laughed, all except the pretty girl who looked sad and puzzled. “Now back to work!” Mr. Mack yelled. The press clickety-clacked; the conveyor system moved; the leaves passed into the machine and emerged, each with its mess?age of mirage; the steel fingers folded them, and into the oven they went. Mr. Mack rubbed his beefy hands. “That’ll cut the taste of chowmein,” he yelled, clapping Rainer on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, my boy.”
Rainer examined Tall Betsy: a typewriter keyboard, with additional keys marked “go,” “stop,” “hold,” “protem,” “1,” “10,” “1,000,” “5,000,” et cetera, up to “100,?000.” So what to write? He saw children starving in India, soldiers being cut down by machine-gun fire, Jews in concentration camps, plagues, purges, inquisitions, witch hunts, and along the Appian Way an unending vista of crucified slaves. Tragedy is the condition of man: deny it if you will with blindness, transcend it only with laughter. Tall Betsy hiccoughed; Rainer pushed the “go” button. “The style is new,” he said to the machine, “but you’ll get used to it. Give it a thousand.” Now he imagined himself an old man, dying alone in a rented room. No second chance; it’s now or’ not at all. That’s worth 20,000, he thought, and Tall Betsy seemed to agree. He laughed, I’m going to like this job.
And indeed he did: his writing no longer had a message, it was a message; he settled down to a pithy pessimism and for the first time in his life began to enjoy his vocation.
The pretty girl was Delia, who added sugar to the dough; her husband was Theo, who measured out the anise. They were drawn to Rainer, as he to them; they invited him home, took him hiking, picnicking, to concerts. He took them to restaurants, nightclubs, casinos; they be?came a trio. Delia loved birds–finches and mynahs, parakeets and canaries, toucans and starlings-kept hundreds in all kinds of cages, would turn them loose on weekends, stand in her garden in a vortex of color, a detached smile on her face, hand raised with grain, eyes unseeing of this world but seeing in the beating of wings some past or future, some remoteness where none could follow and she was quite alone. Theo smoked a pipe, had a library of Oriental religion, and was researching a life of St. Francis as the founder of Zen. He played the recorder, warmed the milk for the tempted cat, solved chess problems but avoid?ed the game, studied butterflies but never put one on a pin.
Within a few weeks after Rainer’s arrival Mack Confections, Inc., was in the midst of a boom. Standing orders were increased and new orders arrived by the hour; production was stepped up; new hands were hired. Mr. Mack was gleeful, hopped about on one foot and then the other, speeding up the production line, peering over his book?keeper’s shoulder, wetting his lips, shouting encouragement to exhausted workers, counting his profits. The taste of the cookies had not changed; it was the tang of the mes?sage that was making the difference. Red-and-white trucks brought great sacks of letters praising the style and pith of the fortunes, and quite a few, also, denouncing the author as degenerate; people in restaurants sent compliments, not to the chef but the writer, and three men with moustaches sent challenges to duel. There was a sudden clamor for the writer’s name. Anonymous, Rainer became a celebrity, was quoted by columnists, invited to address luncheons, rumored to be Russian; Herb Caen said he was a Beatie. The Pope issued a provisional excommunication, in case he were Catholic; the D.A.R. accused him of undermining American institutions; but the people, as Theo put it, “ate him up.” Rainer withheld his name but added the sign of the fox to his fortunes.
The three friends would sit in restaurants and watch the breaking of cookies and reading of fortunes. Most people reacted as if it were their own particular lives upon which comment was made. They would laugh, become thoughtful, embarrassed, sometimes disturbed or angry. One night in Trader Vie’s a middle-aged woman kept ordering cookies, not eating but searching as if for some particular for?tune, some ray of hope perhaps; and not finding it apparently, for when she was at last led away, weeping, there was left on the floor a pyramid of broken cookies reaching to the table top.
Delia was fascinated, often became so curious that she would ask of a stranger what he had read. “I don’t understand it,” she said one evening in a Polynesian cafeteria. Across the room in the dim light two young heads bent lovingly together; the woman seemed to be pleading, the man holding back; the woman broke a cookie, read her fortune, seemed miffed; the man read and laughed; they left abruptly. Delia went to their table and brought back the fortune: In twenty minutes you will be pregnant! “See what trouble you make!” Delia said. Near them an old man ate alone with palsied hands, absently slurping tea in rheumy reverie; when finally he broke his cookie and read the fortune he reeled as if from a blow, knocked a spoon to the flour, shuffled across the room and out the door. Delia went instantly to his table. Nothing in life is certain, but that it comes to a bad end. “You’re simply terrible!” she said.
“In the past,” Rainer said, “nothing but rejection slips; now I write the slips, and nothing comes back. And since reading is oral, how appropriate to publish in food.”
“What are you trying to do?” Delia said, “destroy all hope?”
“The binding is so sweet,” Rainer said with a bow, “the message can afford to be bitter.” “But people can take only so much,” Theo said mildly.
“I don’t understand it,” Delia repeated. “Why would anyone read such things?”
“If you find out,” Rainer said, “why you, feeling as you do, read them, then you’ll know.”
Months passed and the Fox was famous, but declined interviews, avoided reporters, would not be photographed. When newspapermen lined up at the front door he left by the rear. Mr. Mack wanted to cash in on the notoriety, arranged interviews, television appearances, was furious at Rainer’s intransigence; but made peace suddenly when it appeared that the incognito was good business. Everybody was wondering about the Fox, writing about him; his identity became a national guessing game. Mack Confections had been one of seventeen fortune-cookie factories; now there were but four, and the other three were trembling. One by one they collapsed or switched to dry cereals and comic books. The price of cookies went higher and higher, and Mack Confections became a world monopoly, supplying even Hong Kong and Peking. A staff of students translated the fortunes into forty-seven languages.
Mr. Mack became rich but refused to raise wages, said he couldn’t afford it, held the union to the old contract, complained constantly about taxes and employed a staff of lawyers to be suing the government at all times. One morning after a year Rainer went into Mr. Mack’s office.
“I want more money,” he said.
“I don’t have it, you know,” Mr. Mack said nervously, wetting his lips.
“The government takes every penny-you must know that, . . . don’t you? Still you’re a good worker. Actually I’d thought of giving you a raise-if someone works hard, is loyal, I simply want to reward him. Can’t help it . . . just the kind of guy I am, I guess. So I . . . I’m going to raise you . . . to eighty-five dollars a week. How about that!” He beamed, was so touched by his generosity he began to cry.
“I want a hundred thousand a year,” Rainer said, “and fifty per cent of the profits.”
“You’re not only crazy, you’re impertinent. I won’t stand it.”
“Suit yourself, Mack,” Rainer said, showing him a sheaf of job offers.
“I can get it elsewhere. Those factories we knocked off . . . all of them want to come back to life.”
So Mr. Mack gave in and Rainer took a fourteen-room penthouse on Telegraph Hill, had a cellar full of French wine, ordered suits from London, shirts from Florence, shoes from Zurich; drove a Ferrari and a Facel Vega. Hollywood wanted him in movies; he was offered a fellowship to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, invited to address the combined philosophy departments of Harvard, Yale, and Brandeis. He said no to everything, spent evenings with his two friends, would pick up a girl on his way home, come to work at noon with a yawn and a smile.
One afternoon Theo climbed Tall Betsy, lighted his pipe, sat behind his friend. Without security life ends in panic; without risk, in mechanization. Rainer pushed the button marked 5,000; Tall Betsy clickety-clacked, and the green tapes wafted onto the shimmering leaves of dough. Theo laid his hand on Rainer’s shoulder: “Why don’t you settle down, get married?” Pleasure is the referent of value, Rainer wrote, and ordered a thousand. “I’m worried about you,” Theo said. “A man, like a tree, needs roots. You’re so detached, so alone. Too much fun, not enough love. You stand outside of life and laugh.” Truth is not enough, laughter is essential. “You can’t go on like this; something will happen.” “A bolt of lightning?” Rainer asked. “You can curse God a while,” Theo said, “but make a career of it . . . yes, lightning. I’m afraid for you.”
“Ah Theo, you would tremble for my welfare, but it’s my morals that offend you.”
Another time, a warm drowsy afternoon, it was Delia who sat beside him; from the grimy skylight far above them a shaft of yellow sun, teeming with motes, fell on her golden hair. For the experienced actor promptings of despair are cues for laughter. “Can’t you write something sweet?” Delia said. “Just once? What’s the matter with you? Think it would ruin your style? Move over!” She took over the keyboard: Love creates its own reality, and so is beyond illusion.
“No, damn it!” Rainer said, and hit the stop button. “You’ll blow the fuses. Tall Betsy is used to me, won’t take those lies.” He reversed the press, canceled her message, wrote, Hope is the divining rod which dips to the sea of illusions.
“I don’t understand you,” she said. “Why do you take so much away from people?” Beware the questions of women: they say “Why?” but mean “Stop doing it!” “Don’t make fun of me,” Delia said, suddenly pleading. “I’m your friend, am terribly fond of you. I simply want to understand you.” Rainer kissed her, swung back to the key?board: Beware the woman who wants to understand you; she understands you already, wants now to change you. “You’re simply terrible,” Delia said.
Once it happened that Theo was away, and Delia and Rainer spent a day together, swam in the ocean, waltzed on tile parquetry under the moon, drank tequila in a flamenco cellar, and when they got home Delia wouldn’t stop, put on a record of Edith Piaf, brought out champagne. She threw open the cages, and the birds flew screeching around her head. “Come dance with me,” she said, but he refused. “Is Don Juan of the cookie factory worn out from his conquests? No more zip, eh?” She kicked off her shoes and danced with the circling birds, round and round in a flashing vortex of feathers, spilling champagne, pulling up her dress for high kicks, until suddenly she collapsed.
She woke to a terrible stab of guilt but found she was fully dressed, covered with blankets; Rainer had put the birds in their cages, turned off the lights, and gone home. She got up with a hangover, but happy, and went to work; Rainer waved from his dais, and she smiled. In the after?noon she climbed up beside him. “I’m so happy,” she said, “and so grateful. You’re not the opportunist you pretend to be. You put loyalty above pleasure . . . or you would have stayed last night.”
“You’re mixed up, sweetie. You were fiercely seductive, and I wanted to stay, you’re right about that. But wrong about everything else. I put nothing above pleasure. The greater pleasure is simply with the three of us, the fun we have. No sacrifice. Sorry, . . . I mean no slight to your considerable charms.” Faced with incompatible pleasures, choose the keener.
In time Mr. Mack became the seventh wealthiest man in the world, lived in a castle with a moat, had thirteen servants, one wife, two children, three mistresses; but was not happy. He became ever more irritable, fumed about the production line, complaining, scolding, losing his temper. “Oh you blockhead!” he said to Theo one day, “that’s too much anise. How long’ve you been on this job? . . . My God! You’re fired. Get the hell outa here,” and in an upsurge of petulance slapped Theo in the face. “You’re overwrought,” Theo said, “better rest a bit.” “None of your lip, young man'” Mr. Mack said, slapping him again. “I’ll have your skin.”
“What’s the matter with Mack?” Theo asked Rainer. “Bad conscience,” Rainer said. “He doesn’t look well,” Theo said; “I worry about him.” “Well, don’t,” Rainer said, and wrote: Bastards need to suffer; it helps them stand themselves.
Bad luck befell Mr. Mack. Mrs. Mack left him, tied up the community property with injunctions, estranged their daughter. His teenage son, driving drunk, had a head-on collision, suffered a broken back, killed the other driver. A disaffected worker with a shotgun left pellets in Mr. Mack’s lung, powder burns on his face. He became thin, pale, explosive. Only to Theo did he feel close: he hung around the anise station, listened as Theo talked of poetry and philosophy, and sometimes became calm, showed human feeling.
He fell sick, was hospitalized. His son died; his wife and daughter would not visit him. He was found to have a malignant anemia and to be of a blood type so rare that no donor could be located. He issued an appeal to his workers, but few came forward; he was about to die when Theo was discovered to be of the same type and offered blood. This indebted Mr. Mack, and he became even more nasty, sarcastic. Delia visited him once and was showered with obscenity; his workers were eager for his death; he had no friends but Theo. The doctors said it was hopeless, but every day Theo would sit at his bedside, spoon-feed him, hold his hand, suffer his insults, give him hope.
Though Delia protested, two or three times a week Theo would give a transfusion. She asked Rainer to intervene. “What’s this blood relationship?” Rainer asked Theo. “Why so wrapped up in the boss?”
“It’s not the disease that’s killing him,” Theo said, “but his own hatred. He can’t believe in love, so keeps proving to himself that no one can love him by being so mean that no one will.”
“A son of a bitch, in other words. How does it concern you?”
“Maybe I can show him the reality of love.”
“You’re a fool, Theo; you’re playing Christ. There are better roles, certainly less pretentious.”
The transfusions did not help; Mr. Mack grew weaker, thinner, and one day Theo saw that he was dying. His flesh was yellow; he could not turn his head; only his eyes moved, and directed at Theo a baleful gaze. He seemed to want to speak, and Theo brought his ear close to the waxen lips. “Dying is bad enough,” Mr. Mack whispered; “it’s too much, in addition, to see your stupid face. Get from here and be damned and don’t come back.”
Theo looked at him a long moment then sat beside him, took his hand. “You don’t mean that, Mr. Mack; I’m not going to leave you, and you’re not going to die. You will get well. Believe me. Trust me.” Their eyes locked in struggle. After a while Mr. Mack seemed to surrender; hatred drained from his gaze; his face relaxed; he turned his cheek to the pillow and slept.
Now Theo was ill, almost as pale as Mr. Mack, his bones shaken by a sudden fever. The nurses put him to bed in Mr. Mack’s room; Delia and Rainer kept watch, one of them always there. -Delia wept, scolded, cajoled, but could not reach him. His eyes became luminous; his flesh dissolved; and on the third day he seemed not so much to die as to go to Heaven. Delia and Rainer walked away dry eyed, abandoned. “I wish he had waited for me,” Delia said.
Three weeks later Mr. Mack left the hospital; a month later he was back at work-thin, quiet, ghostlike. As his strength returned he began to move about the factory, walk along the production line. Sometimes Delia would look up to find him staring at her from a dark corner, eyes brimming with tears. Often he mounted the dais and sat absently behind Rainer.
One day he called Delia into his office, with elaborate courtesy sat her down, started to speak; he swallowed, walked about, wiped his eyes, cleared his throat, planted himself before her. “Your husband, . . . my dear girl, . . . Theo, . . . a great man, very great man. Never did it occur to me”-with the beginning of rhetoric he seemed to recover a bit-“that a truly great man would work here, in my factory, under this roof, measuring out the anise.” He gazed at her hungrily, stroked the back of her hand, burst into tears. “My dear girl, I . . . am settling his salary upon you in permanent trust.”
“Well bully for him!” Rainer said when Delia told him. “I’m not surprised about the tears, but am astonished they dissolve the glue that sticks him to money.”
One morning Rainer found the bronze plaque replaced, the new one identifying the company as “Theobald Cookies, Inc.” All the stationery had been changed, all the signs, and a long eulogy of Theo mailed to all customers. Mr. Mack hung about Delia that day, beaming, but she was embarrassed and could say nothing. He went then to Rainer who gave him a sardonic stare: “What do you want, old boy, a pat on the head?” Mr. Mack suggested a series of fortunes dedicated to Theo: “I want every man who breaks a cookie, anywhere in the world, to think of Theo.” Rainer exploded: “You shovel the sentiment, Mack; leave the fortunes to me.” The guilt of the quick raises monuments to the dead. Mr. Mack turned away, crestfallen.
One Monday morning at eleven the alarm sounded, the production line stopped, and over the loud speakers came Mr. Mack’s funereal voice: “All hands stand by at the fortune press.” He arrived with head bowed, hands clasped behind his back; mounted the dais, faced the crowd, and slowly raised his arms high and wide as if to embrace them all. For a long minute he held this pose. “We are gathered together,” he said finally, “to honor the memory of our dear departed-fellow worker, loyal friend, dearly beloved, . . .” his voice broke, “. . . now lost to us. Let us bow our heads in prayer.” Nothing could be heard in the great room but a faint whispering of wind high up in the skylight. “All of us,” Mr. Mack continued, “have been grieving alone in our hearts. It will draw us closer if we share our grief and memories. Theo would have wanted this. I call first on Theo’s best friend, our great writer.”
Mr. Mack stepped aside, hands piously folded. Rainer looked out over the crowd; three men in the front row were crying. For a moment he hesitated, then stepped lightly to the edge of the platform.
“Not much to say. Theo was born in 1923, had few talents, an undistinguished life; pretensions to scholarship but a limited mind. He liked to sing, loved Scotch whisky, had a great eye for the pretty ankle-but was inhibited, guilty, would seldom look at a pretty knee. He was a fool, too, and died from giving too much blood. A gentle man, with a shy smile, a good friend. I’m sorry he’s gone.
“But you do him no honor with these tears. It’s not grief you feel, nor even loss, but self-pity. You weep for yourselves.”
There was a murmur of outrage; Mr. Mack leapt to his feet. “I protest I In the name of his wife, friends, fellow workers . . . in the name of us all I repudiate this description.” Rainer shrugged, sat down. “Theo was a simple man, to be sure,” Mr. Mack continued, “but in the way of Jesus. He was truly a Christ among us, and no one shall defame him.” He turned to glare at Rainer. “The idea of sacrifice,” he went on, “is the fountainhead of morality; without it we are beasts in the jungle. But we must not take it for granted. It could be lost. It has lived from Calvary to this moment only because a few gallant, selfless spirits have embodied it at the cost of their own lives. Theo was one such, and we are blessed to have known him, honored to have heard his voice, touched his hand. We must enshrine his example in our spirits, labor to become worthy.” He raised his arms. “Go now in peace, and may his grace be with you.”
“I hand it to you, Mack,” Rainer said as the crowd dispersed. “There was many a moist eye, many a drippy nose. Can you kiss babies too? . . . You ought to run for governor.” Mr. Mack, descending Tall Betsy with clerical step, did not deign to reply.
That week Rainer wrote of morality:
The idea of sacrifice disguises the hope of saving one’s own skin.
Herd animals may be identified by the tendency to carry Bibles.
Morals are the distillate of security operations
On Tuesday there were mutterings against him in the toilet; on Wednesday a petition to fire him was circulated; on Thursday as he left the factory five-hundred workers standing in a straight line stared in silent denunciation. On Friday when he arrived, Mr. Mack was standing on Tall Betsy before a crowd of workers, apparently having just finished a speech.
“I shall now myself write a fortune,” Mr. Mack said, casting a nervous glance at Rainer. “In memory of Theo it will be disseminated in our famous confection throughout the world.” He sat at the keyboard, speaking as he wrote: Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friend. There was a chorus of approbation, a few amens. Rainer leapt to the dais and hit the stop key. “Not over my mark,” he said and, reaching into the machine, withdrew the sign of the fox. Mr. Mack then pressed the key that called for 100,000 copies. The machine sputtered, jerked. “You’ll choke Betsy on that stuff,” Rainer said, but presently the machine acquiesced, began the familiar clickety-dacking. Mr. Mack held aloft the tape. “The mark of the beast is gone,” he said. “The essence of Christ remains. ”
On Monday Rainer again found Mr. Mack at Tall Betsy, writing, but no crowd this time. As Rainer started to mount the dais his way was blocked by Robert Farley, six feet four, two-hundred-ninety pounds. Farley was an ex-machinist, ex-musician, whose job was to sharpen the thousand knives which cut the dough into cookie-size leaves. He was a sentimental giant easily moved to tears, had served a term for manslaughter a few years back, having done in his wife with a butcher knife and tried to ship her out of the country, dismembered, in a cello case. Right now his eyes were red from crying, his shirt wet on either side of his chest where tears had dropped unnoticed. His face was contorted, his lips moved silently.
“What’s with you, Farley?”
Farley stuttered, raised his arms, inarticulate, presently took the tape issuing from the machine, put it in Rainer’s hand: He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. Farley jabbed his fingers at this message several times, then gasped: “You. . don’t . . . write . . . any . . . more.”
“Idiot!” Rainer said. “Out of my way.”
“Don’t push your luck, buddy.” With the approach of violence Farley regained ease and voice.
Rainer grabbed his shirt and gave a shove, which -had no effect; whereupon Farley with an easy swipe of his left arm knocked Rainer flat, sent him sliding ten feet on the floor. Rainer got to his feet, grabbed a twelve-pound spoon, and had started for Farley when Mr. Mack jumped down between them. “Hold it, Rainer. A word with you please.” He took Rainer’s arm, drew him away. “Don’t antagonize him,” Mr. Mack said gently. “Come, walk with me. You and Farley must learn to love each other.”
“You’ve flipped, boss. You got a psychiatrist?”
Mr. Mack gave a false and priestly chuckle, threw an arm lightly over Rainer’s shoulder. “Some of the boys have been moved to express in writing their admiration for Theo, as is fitting and proper. So for a while, perhaps, . . . they will write the fortunes and you may . . . be relieved. Farley will lead off.”
“But Farley is stupid!”
“He’s devout. Intelligence is not everything.”
“For a writer,” Rainer said, “nothing can take the place of intelligence.”
“Well there may be some little difference of opinion about that. Why don’t you take a vacation. Get some rest. Meditate a bit; remember the past; think about Theo. It’ll do you good . . . may help you understand what we’re doing here.”
They walked back to the press where Farley was now installed, his great hulking shape dwarfing the keyboard, darting uneasy glances here and there with his’ small tearful eyes. Rainer picked up the tape: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“But perhaps you should give me back that little fox sign,” Mr. Mack said. “Our customers seem to expect it.”
“No dice, Mack. You can print the Bible verse by verse, but not over my mark.”
For several days, in millions of cookies, Farley gave his thoughts to the world
All of us are guilty; the only redemption is sacrifice.
So long as anyone in the world is dying all are guilty.
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.
You are your brother’s keeper and your brother is everywhere.
On the fourth day he gave up all pretense of invention and, with Bible open before him, began pecking out the Gospel according to Matthew, and was quickly replaced; but not before seventeen carloads of cookies had been stuffed with the genealogy of Christ (And Aram begat Aminadab-Ezekias begat Manasses-and Zorababel begat Abiud) and had to be destroyed.
The next writer was Hartfell, the baker, huge, pastyfaced, dressed in white, and covered altogether, even his eyelashes, with a fine dust of flour. He did not so much sit on Tall Betsy as hover above her like a cloud. He was a philosopher, much concerned with the definition of man:
Cunning, perception, even foresight, all these we share with beasts; only sacrifice makes the man.
Some beasts look like men, talk like men, act more or less like men; but if they have not a willingness to sacrifice they are of the jungle.
Brevity was not within his compass. He grew quickly so verbose, even by the end of the first day, that his fortunes were running to three paragraphs; the folding mechanism was wrapping the cookies in the fortunes instead of the other way round, while from the oven came the acrid smoke of burning paper.
There was however no dearth of replacements. Secretly everybody was a writer, and there followed a succession of workers each presiding for a while on the dais pecking out favorite aphorisms, cherished platitudes, homespun insights. Tall Betsy had frequent breakdowns, blowing fuses, shorting out, giving off noxious fumes, occasionally even sent an electric shock into the seat of a writer. Mr. Mack thrived on the regime of piety, regained his rotund contour. In his face the lines of suffering faded, leaving only the guise of guilt.
Rainer no longer cared nor spent much time in the factory. Occasionally he would wander in, read the tape, wave ironically to the sweating, lip-moving writer, walk along the production line, flirt with the girls. In an atmosphere of reverence he was inclined to make jokes, to whistle, and one Thursday was come upon in the spice room stretched out with a laughing redhead.
“Cut down on the sugar,” he told Delia; “they’re putting so much in the fortunes you don’t need it here.” She was offended that he would not grieve for Theo, but he was unmoved. No time for that, he told her; sorry. She was lonely, he talked to her, and after a while she became less angry. He played with her birds, told funny stories, took her out in the evenings, and a time came eventually when he stayed the night.
One day as Rainer entered the factory Mr. Mack was lurking in the hallway. “Good morning, son, how are you? Come in my office . . . sit here. This chair is more comfortable. Cigar?”
“What’s the matter, Mack? You look worried.”
“Well, I am . . . about you.” He admitted this with a rueful boyish honesty and bit off the end of a cigar. “Fact is I’ve never felt quite right about . . . putting you on forced leave, as it were. Oh it was my own doing, I’m the first to admit that. But it was not quite fair-I see that now. Anybody can make a mistake; I guess that’s just the way we mortals are. But we have to make amends. So, I just want to say to you, man to man, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I’m giving you back your job.”
“I don’t believe you, Mack. Anyway I’m used to not working now, I like it.”
Mr. Mack became reflective, took a different tack. “You know, Rainer, there’s a lot of feeling against you, and it’s bound to get worse. The men resent your getting paid without working. There was an attempt on my life, you know. The same could happen to you. Frankly I’m worried.”
“You’re cracking my heart wide open. What’s that under your hand?” Rainer seized a folder that Mr. Mack was trying to hide, and in the tussle there fell to the floor a chart of sales which showed a precipitous drop. Rainer grinned: “Looks like a ski jump.” Along with the chart was a sheaf of letters demanding the return of the Fox. “So that’s it,” Rainer said. “Ah Mack, was it just a good-time morality?- Is it not also for adversity?” “None of your lip, young man!” “Would you, for mere money,” Rainer went on, “call back a writer whose principles you deplore? How crass of you!”
Mr. Mack himself began the writing of fortunes, dredging from ancient depths fragments of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger, but could achieve no zip or tang, and every mail brought cancellations of orders. He tried then to copy Rainer’s cynicism (Life ends!-Check in your suit! -Meet you on the bridge!) but people heard the phony note and were bored. He forged the sign of the fox, but no one was fooled. Other factories reentered the field. Again he begged Rainer to write, offered a bonus, a larger share of profits. “Absolutely not,” said Rainer. Mr. Mack hired one writer after another, firing them in quick succession; he brought Hartwell back for a while, even Farley. Nothing was left now of Mr. Mack’s clerical manner: he strode along the production line, occasionally cuffing a worker, hovered about Tall Betsy, yelled at his writers, called them peasants, buffoons, and soon no one would write. He had to do it himself, would sit at the keyboard, sweat and swear and pound his head. His blood pressure rose, the rest of his hair fell out, his temper was extremely bad.
The company was now foundering. Wages were lowered; every week hundreds of employees were laid off. The great room was poisoned by an atmosphere of distrust, recrimination; workers went about with lowered heads and sullen faces, muttered in the locker rooms, beat their wives at home. One day, as it occurred to Mr. Mack that a woman might have the knack for fortunes, he assigned the job to Delia. “I don’t want it,” she said. “Do it or get out,” he said. Already her wages had been cut, the trust revoked; she could hardly buy food for her birds. So she sat on Tall Betsy and wrote from her heart:
The maze of love is better than all straight roads.
Better to live in the street and be jostled than alone in a tower of gold.
No victory over death but a tangle of loving hearts
Mr. Mack was enthusiastic at first-“Excellent!” he declared, “pure beauty, pure poetry!”-but cookie-eaters of the world were not impressed and sales continued to drop. Writing became for Delia a heavy burden, sometimes made her frantic. Often Rainer would sit with her on Tall Betsy, teasing a bit, petting her, playing with her hair.
Mr. Mack was enraged at his bad luck, scapegoated everybody. Customers no longer complained; they had lost interest in a failing concern, simply placed their orders elsewhere. Delia felt the continuing failure now as her responsibility, wanted desperately to stop, but Mr. Mack had no one else and would not permit it. One day when she went to his office to plead he pulled her on his lap, thrust a hand between her thighs, and when she slapped him said, “I can’t meet the payroll, may have to let you go—unless you are nice to me.”
Wages were cut a second time and then a third. The union charged bad faith, claimed that Mr. Mack’s personal fortune was still in the hundreds of millions, pointed out that stock dividend’s had not been cut. A strike was announced but was called off when a spy reported that Mr. Mack wanted the strike as pretext for a shutdown. The union filed suit for breach of contract; Mr. Mack retaliated with another wage cut; the union filed for an injunction.
Rainer was aloof from it all, busy in pleasure; days would pass without his coming in. He drew an undiminished salary; Mr. Mack was afraid to fire him. One afternoon, having been away for a week, he climbed the dais with a huge bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums. Delia smiled as he kissed her, forced herself to look at the flowers, but her face was drawn and distant; her eyes avoided his. He
looked at the tape:
He who seeks certainty in ideas is lost finally in experience.
Anger makes barriers, stops the flow of life.
A fool may find love, but only the wise and brave can hold it.
He tried to cheer her, told her of travels and encounters, and when still he could not reach her went away and returned with a humming bird, yellow and blue, in a silver cage. Delia looked at the bird for a long time, then opened the cage, held the gram of life in her hand. Abruptly she set it free and turned back to her work, not even looking to see where it had flown. Rainer put his hands on her shoulders, stroked her neck and hair. Oh sweetheart, she wrote, why couldn’t we have found each other a long time ago? Before it was too late? She began to cry; he turned her to him. “I can’t go on,” she sobbed, suddenly flung herself in his arms, burrowing her wet face in his shoulder. “Such a beautiful bird!” she cried, “but it would die with me. I can’t make them happy; they don’t sing any more. They sit in their cages and look at me and are sad. I can’t stand the way I live. Mr. Mack offers money if I spy on the union; the union wants me to sleep with Mr. Mack, get something on him. Oh I hate them all and I can’t write fortunes and I loathe this job!”
Rainer held her until she was calm, looked keenly in her face, then took her seat at the keyboard, pulled up his sleeves, put the sign of the fox in the machine. “Now cheer up,” he said, and wrote:
Humor is a luxury to happiness, a necessity to despair.
He that is without sadness among you, let him first cast a stone.
Security is reciprocal to change.
Animals should work; the duty of man is pleasure;sacrifice is for saints.
Tall Betsy seemed to recognize the touch; the clicketyclacking grew faster, smoother, took on a syncopated rhythm and a kind of purring. A few curious workers gathered to watch; Mr. Mack appeared with his bodyguard, picked up the tape. “Excellent!” he roared, “excellent! That’ll cut the taste of soy sauce. Now back to work you peasants. Speed up the line. We got a writer.”
With the first new shipment orders began pouring in. The Fox was remembered; arguments sprang up about him; columnists quoted him; again there was the clamor for interviews. As sales increased, Mr. Mack raised the price and hired more workers; once again rival companies were forced into receivership or the production of bubblegum and comic books. Feature stories about the Fox appeared in magazines; he was known as the “Destroyer of Transcendence” and “Founder of the Cult of the Present”; college students wrote term papers about him; a collection of his fortunes was published, under the title Adventures in Nihilism, in a paperback series on living philosophers. His were the first fortune cookies ever to be copyrighted, occasioning a debate in Washington as to whether whole cookies or just the messages should be deposited in the Library of Congress. (The Department of Copyrights considered the pastry as a binding and wanted whole cookies; the Section on Pests of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said this would bring roaches to the stacks and was a hazard to health.) He became more famous and more wealthy, but remained anonymous. He built a Porsche Spyder and drove in road races, learned Spanish and bought a ranch in Mexico, collected Mayan art and Persian wall hangings. Two or three times a week he came to the factory to write fortunes; when away for any length of time he cabled them to Delia who fed them to Tall Betsy. He played polo in Nassau, sailed a twenty-eight-foot sloop around the Horn alone, bought a topless nightclub and personally interviewed each applicant.
One afternoon in July when the air was hot and still Delia knelt behind him as he worked, arms around his neck, ruffling his hair, murmuring in his ear. From the high skylight a shaft of golden, mote-loaded sunlight fell on the dais, enveloped them both. Suddenly down through the pillar of light with a delicate beating of wings swooped a humming bird, yellow and blue, and seized the tape issuing from Tall Betsy. Delia cried out in delight, “Oh look! It’s come back. It’s our own.” The bird tugged in vain at the tape, dropped it, swooped down to the moving production line to take a fortune from one of the cookies, and there, caught by the foot in the folding mechanism, fluttered helplessly. Rainer leaned out to get it, could not, leaned further, slipped, fell across the river .of trembling leaves. As he started to rise ten thousand steel fingers reached up seized his clothes and flesh. He struggled for a minute, then knew it was hopeless. With his left arm, which was all he could move, he freed the bird. Della screamed unheard; the production line moved on; Rainer looked up with a smile and a wave and was carried into the oven to his death. The bird fled upward through the golden shaft with Rainer’s last fortune: Don’t cry for help; there is no help; but give a signal.