GREENER THAN YOU THINK
Also by WARD MOORE
Breathe the Air Again
Greener Than You Think
WILLIAM SLOANE ASSOCIATES, INC. Publishers ....... New York
Copyright, 1947, by WARD MOORE
MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. The text intentionally contains non-standard contractions, unhyphenated combination words and other informal styles and spellings, which, except for minor typographical errors, have all been transcribed as printed.
For BECKY 1927-1937
"... I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a babbled of green fields. 'How now, Sir John!' quoth I; 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So 'a cried out, 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I hop'd there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet...." Henry V
One: Albert Weener Begins 1
Two: Consequences of a Discovery 47
Three: Man Triumphant I 99
Four: Man Triumphant II 159
Five: The South Pacific Sailing Discovery 255
Six: Mr Weener Sees It Through 327
Neither the vegetation nor people in this book are entirely fictitious. But, reader, no person pictured here is you. With one exception. You, Sir, Miss, or Madam—whatever your country or station—are Albert Weener. As I am Albert Weener.
Albert Weener Begins
1. I always knew I should write a book. Something to help tired minds lay aside the cares of the day. But I always say you never can tell what's around the corner till you turn it, and everyone has become so accustomed to fantastic occurrences in the last twenty one years that the inspiring and relaxing novel I used to dream about would be today as unreal as Atlantis. Instead, I find I must write of the things which have happened to me in that time.
It all began with the word itself.
"Grass. Gramina. The family Gramineae. Grasses."
"Oh," I responded doubtfully. The picture in my mind was only of a vague area in parks edged with benches for the idle.
Anyway, I was far too resentful to pay strict attention. I had set out in good faith, not for the first time in my career as a salesman, to answer an ad offering "$50 or more daily to top producers," naturally expecting the searching onceover of an alert salesmanager, back to the light, behind a shinytopped desk. When youve handled as many products as I had an ad like that has the right sound. But the world is full of crackpots and some of the most pernicious are those who hoodwink unsuspecting canvassers into anticipating a sizzling deal where there is actually only a warm hope. No genuinely highclass proposition ever came from a layout without aggressiveness enough to put on some kind of front; working out of an office, for instance, not an outdated, rundown apartment in the wrong part of Hollywood.
"It's only a temporary drawback, Weener, which restricts the Metamorphizer's efficacy to grasses."
The wheeling syllables, coming in a deep voice from the middleaged woman, emphasized the absurdity of the whole business. The snuffy apartment, the unhomelike livingroom—dust and books its only furniture—the unbelievable kitchen, looking like a pictured warning to housewives, were only guffaws before the final buffoonery of discovering the J S Francis who'd inserted that promising ad to be Josephine Spencer Francis. Wrong location, wrong atmosphere, wrong gender.
Now I'm not the sort of man who would restrict women to a place in the nursery. No indeed, I believe they are in some ways just as capable as I am. If Miss Francis had been one of those wellgroomed, efficient ladies who have earned their place in the business world without at the same time sacrificing femininity, I'm sure I would not have suffered such a pang for my lost time and carfare.
But wellgroomed and feminine were alike inapplicable adjectives. Towering above me—she was at least five foot ten while I am of average height—she strode up and down the kitchen which apparently was office and laboratory also, waving her arms, speaking too exuberantly, the antithesis of moderation and restraint. She was an aggregate of cylinders, big and small. Her shapeless legs were columns with large flatheeled shoes for their bases, supporting the inverted pediment of great hips. Her too short, greasespotted skirt was a mighty barrel and on it was placed the tremendous drum of her torso.
"A little more work," she rumbled, "a few interesting problems solved, and the Metamorphizer will change the basic structure of any plant inoculated with it."
Large as she was, her face and head were disproportionately big. Her eyes I can only speak of as enormous. I dare say there are some who would have called them beautiful. In moments of intensity they bored into mine and held them till I felt quite uncomfortable.
"Think of what this discovery means," she urged me. "Think of it, Weener. Plants will be capable of making use of anything within reach. Understand, Weener, anything. Rocks, quartz, decomposed granite—anything."
She took a gold victorian toothpick from the pocket of her mannish jacket and used it energetically. I shuddered. "Unfortunately," she went on, a little indistinctly, "unfortunately, I lack resources for further experiment right now—"
This too, I thought despairingly. A slight cash investment—just enough to get production started—how many wishful times Ive heard it. I was a salesman, not a sucker, and anyway I was for the moment without liquid capital.
"It will change the face of the world, Weener. No more usedup areas, no more frantic scrabbling for the few bits of naturally rich ground, no more struggle to get artificial fertilizers to wornout soil in the face of ignorance and poverty."
She thrust out a hand—surprisingly finely and economically molded, barely missing a piledup heap of dishes crowned by a flowerpot trailing droopy tendrils. Excitedly she paced the floor largely taken up by jars and flats of vegetation, some green and flourishing, others gray and sickly, all constricting her movements as did the stove supporting a glass tank, robbed of the goldfish which should rightfully have gaped against its sides and containing instead some slimy growth topped by a bubbling brown scum. I simply couldnt understand how any woman could so far oppose what must have been her natural instinct as to live and work in such a slatternly place. It wasnt just her kitchen which was disordered and dirty; her person too was slovenly and possibly unclean. The lank gray hair swishing about her ears was dark, perhaps from vigor, but more likely from frugality with soap and water. Her massive, heavychinned face was untouched by makeup and suggested an equal innocence of other attentions.
"Fertilizers! Poo! Expedients, Weener—miserable, makeshift expedients!" Her unavoidable eyes bit into mine. "What is a fertilizer? A tidbit, a pap, a lollypop. Indians use fish; Chinese, nightsoil; agricultural chemists concoct tasty tonics of nitrogen and potash—where's your progress? Putting a mechanical whip on a buggy instead of inventing an internal combustion engine. Ive gone directly to the heart of the matter. Like Watt. Like Maxwell. Like Almroth Wright. No use being held back because youve only poor materials to work with—leap ahead with imagination. Change the plant itself, Weener, change the plant itself!"
It was no longer politeness which held me. If I could have freed myself from her eyes I would have escaped thankfully.
"Nourish'm on anything," she shouted, rubbing the round end of the toothpick vigorously into her ear. "Sow a barren waste, a worthless slagheap with lifegiving corn or wheat, inoculate the plants with the Metamorphizer—and you have a crop fatter than Iowa's or the Ukraine's best. The whole world will teem with abundance."
Perhaps—but what was the sales angle? Where did I come in? I didnt know a dandelion from a toadstool and was quite content to keep my distance from nature. Had she inserted the ad merely to lure a listener? Her whole procedure was irregular: not a word about territories and commissions. If I could bring her to the point of mentioning the necessary investment, maybe I could get away gracefully. "You said you were stuck," I prompted, resolved to get the painful interview over with.
"Stuck? Stuck? Oh—money to perfect the Metamorphizer. Luckily it will do it itself."
"I don't catch."
"Look about you—what do you see?"
I glanced around and started to say, a measuring glass on a dirty plate next to half a cold fried egg, but she stopped me with a sweep of her arm which came dangerously close to the flasks and retorts—all holding dirtycolored liquids—which cluttered the sink. "No, no. I mean outside."
I couldnt see outside, because instead of a window I was facing a sickly leaf unaccountably preserved in a jar of alcohol. I said nothing.
"Metaphorically, of course. Wheatfields. Acres and acres of wheat. Bread, wheat, a grass. And cornfields. Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois—not a state in the Union without corn. Milo, oats, sorghum, rye—all grasses. And the Metamorphizer will work on all of them."
I'm always a man with an open mind. She might—it was just possible—she might have something afterall. But could I work with her? Go out in the sticks and talk to farmers; learn to sit on fence rails and whittle, asking after crops as if they were of interest to me? No, no ... it was fantastic, out of the question.
A different, more practical setup now.... At least there would have been no lack of prospects, if you wanted to go miles from civilization to find them; no answers like We never read magazines, thank you. Of course it was hardly believable a woman without interest in keeping herself presentable could invent any such fabulous product, but there was a bare chance of making a few sales just on the idea.
The idea. It suddenly struck me she had the whole thing backwards. Grasses, she said, and went on about wheat and corn and going out to the rubes. Southern California was dotted with lawns, wasnt it? Why rush around to the hinterland when there was a big territory next door? And undoubtedly a better one?
"Revive your old tired lawn," I improvised. "No manures, fuss, cuss, or muss. One shot of the Meta—one shot of Francis' Amazing Discovery and your lawn springs to new life."
"Lawns? Nonsense!" she snorted, rudely, I thought. "Do you think Ive spent years in order to satisfy suburban vanity? Lawns indeed!"
"Lawns indeed, Miss Francis," I retorted with some spirit. "I'm a salesman and I know something about marketing a product. Yours should be sold to householders for their lawns."
"Should it? Well, I say it shouldnt. Listen to me: there are two ways of making a discovery. One is to cut off a cat's hindleg. The discovery is then made that a cat with one leg cut off has three legs. Hah!
"The other way is to find out your need and then search for a method of filling it. My work is with plants. I don't take a daisy and see if I can make it produce a red and black petaled monstrosity. If I did I'd be a fashionable horticulturist, delighted to encourage imbeciles to grow grass in a desert.
"My method is the second one. I want no more backward countries; no more famines in India or China; no more dustbowls; no more wars, depressions, hungry children. For this I produced the Metamorphizer—to make not two blades of grass grow where one sprouted before, but whole fields flourish where only rocks and sandpiles lay.
"No, Weener, it won't do—I can't trade in my vision as a downpayment on a means to encourage a waste of ground, seed and water. You may think I lost such rights when I thought up the name Metamorphizer to appeal on the popular level, but there's a difference."
That was a clincher. Anyone who believed Metamorphizer had salesappeal just wasnt all there. But why should I disillusion her and wound her pride? Down underneath her rough exterior I supposed she could be as sensitive as I; and I hope I am not without chivalry.
I said nothing, but of course her interdiction of the only possibility killed any weakening inclination. And yet ... yet.... Afterall, I had to have something....
"All right, Weener. This pump—" she produced miraculously from the jumble an unwieldy engine dragging a long and tangling tail of hose behind it, the end lost among mementos of unfinished meals "—this pump is full of the Metamorphizer, enough to inoculate a hundred and fifty acres when added in proper proportion to the irrigating water. I have a table worked out to show you about that. The tank holds five gallons; get $50 a gallon—a dollar and a half an acre and keep ten percent for yourself. Be sure to return the pump every night."
I had to say for her that when she got down to business she didnt waste any words. Perhaps this contrasting directness so startled me I was roped in before I could refuse. On the other hand, of course, I would be helping out someone who needed my assistance badly, since she couldnt, with all the obvious factors against her, be having a very easy time. Sometimes it is advisable to temper business judgment with kindness.
Her first offer was ridiculous in its assumption that a salesman's talent, skill and effort were worth only a miserable ten percent, as though I were a literary agent with something a cinch to sell. I began to feel more at home as we ironed out the details and I brought the knowledge acquired with much hard work and painful experience into the bargaining. Fifty percent I wanted and fifty percent I finally got by demanding seventyfive. She became as interested in the contest as she had been before in benefits to humanity and I perceived a keen mind under all her eccentricity.
I can't truthfully say I got to like her, but I reconciled myself and eventually was on my way with the pump—a trifling weight to Miss Francis, judging by the way she handled it, but uncomfortably heavy to me—strapped to my back and ten feet of recalcitrant hose coiled round my shoulder. She turned her imperious eyes on me again and repeated for the fourth or fifth time the instructions for applying, as though I were less intelligent than she. I went out through the barren livingroom and took a backward glance at the scaling stucco walls of the apartmenthouse, shaking my head. It was a queer place for Albert Weener, the crackerjack salesman who had once led his team in a national contest to put over a threepiece aluminum deal, to be working out of. And for a woman. And for such a woman....
2. Everything is for the best, is my philosophy and Make your cross your crutch is a good thought to hold; so I reminded myself that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown and no one sees the bright side of things if he wears dark glasses. Since it takes all kinds to make a world and Josephine Spencer Francis was one of those kinds, wasnt it only reasonable to suppose there were other kinds who would buy the stuff she'd invented? The only way to sell something is first to sell yourself and I piously went over the virtues of the Metamorphizer in my mind. What if by its very nature there could be no repeat business? I wasnt tying myself to it for life.
All that remained was to find myself a customer. I tried to recall the location of the nearest rural territory. San Fernando valley, probably—a long, tiresome trip. And expensive, unless I wished to demean myself by thumbing rides—a difficult thing to do, burdened as I was by the pump. If she hadnt balked unreasonably about putting the stuff on lawns, I'd have prospects right at hand.
I was suddenly lawnconscious. There was probably not a Los Angeles street I hadnt covered at some time—magazines, vacuums, old gold, nearnylons—and I must have been aware of green spaces before most of the houses, but now for the first time I saw lawns. Neat, sharply confined, smoothshaven lawns. Sagging, slipping, eager-to-keep-up-appearances but fighting-a-losing-game lawns. Ragged, weedy, dissolute lawns. Halfbare, repulsively crippled, hummocky lawns. Bright lawns, insistent on former respectability and trimness; yellow and gray lawns, touched with the craziness of age, quite beyond all interest in looks, content to doze easily in the sun. If Miss Francis' mixture was on the upandup and she hadnt introduced a perfectly unreasonable condition—why, I couldnt miss.
On the other hand, I thought suddenly, I'm the salesman, not she. It was up to me as a practical man to determine where and how I could sell to the best advantage. With sudden resolution I walked over a twinkling greensward and rang the bell.
"Good afternoon, madam. I can see from your garden youre a lady who's interested in keeping it lovely."
"Not my garden and Mrs Smith's not home." The door shut. Not gently.
The next house had no lawn at all, but was fronted with a rank growth of ivy. I felt no one had a right to plant ivy when I was selling something effective only on the family Gramineae. I tramped over the ivy hard and rang the doorbell on the other side.
"Good afternoon, madam. I can see from the appearance of your lawn youre a lady who really cares for her garden. I'm introducing to a restricted group—just one or two in each neighborhood—a new preparation, an astounding discovery by a renowned scientist which will make your grass twice as green and many times as vigorous upon one application, without the aid of anything else, natural or artificial."
"My gardener takes care of all that."
"There is a city ordinance against unlicensed solicitors. Have you a license, young man?"
After the fifth refusal I began to think less unkindly of Miss Francis' idea of selling the stuff to farmers and to wonder what was wrong with my technique. After some understandable hesitation—for I don't make a practice of being odd or conspicuous—I sat down on the curb to think. Besides, the pump was getting wearisomely heavy. I couldnt decide exactly what was unsatisfactory in my routine. The stuff had neither been used nor advertised, so there could be no prejudice against it; no one had yet allowed me to get so far as quoting price, so it wasnt too expensive.
The process of elimination brought me to the absurd conclusion that the fault must lie in me. Not in my appearance, I reasoned, for I was a personable young man, a little over thirty at the time, with no obvious defects a few visits to the dentist wouldnt have removed. Of course I do have an unfortunate skin condition, but such a thing's an act of God, as the lawyers say, and people must take me as I am.
No, it wasnt my appearance ... or was it? That monstrously outsized pump! Who wanted to listen to a salestalk from a man apparently prepared for an immediate gasattack? There is little use in pressing your trousers between two boards under the mattress if you discount such neatness with the accouterment of an invading Martian. I uncoiled the hose from my shoulder and eased the incubus from my back. Leaving them visible from the corner of my eye, I crossed the most miserable lawn yet encountered.
It was composed of what I since learned is Bermuda, a plant most Southern Californians call—with many profane prefixes—devilgrass. It was yellow, the dirty, grayish yellow of moldy straw; and bald, scuffed spots immodestly exposed the cracked, parched earth beneath. Over the walk, interwoven stolons had been felted down into a ragged mat, repellent alike to foot and eye. Perversely, onto what had once been flowerbeds, the runners crept erect, bristling spines showing faintly green on top—the only live color in the miserable expanse. Where the grass had gone to seed there were patches of muddy purple, patches which enhanced rather than relieved the diseased color of the whole and emphasized the dying air of the yard. It was a neglected, unvalued thing; an odious appendage, a mistake never rectified.
"Madam," I began, "your lawn is deplorable." There was no use giving her the line about I-can-see-you-are-a-lady-who-cares-for-lovely-things. Anyway, now the pump was off my back I felt reckless. I threw the whole book of salesmanship away. "It's the most neglected lawn in the neighborhood. It is, madam, I'm sorry to say, no less than a disgrace."
She was a woman beyond the age of childbearing, her dress revealing the outlines of her corset, and she looked at me coldly through rimless glassing biting the bridge of her inadequate nose. "So what?" she asked.
"Madam," I said, "for ten dollars I can make this the finest lawn in the block, the pride of your family and the envy of your neighbors."
"I can do better things with ten dollars than spend it on a bunch of dead grass."
Gratefully I knew I had her then and was glad I hadnt weakly given in to an impulse to carry out the crackpot's original instructions. When they start to argue, my motto is, theyre sold. I took a good breath and wound up for the clincher.
I won't say she was an easy sale, but afterall I'm a psychologist; I found all her weak points and touched them expertly. Even so, she made me cut my price in half, leaving me only twofifty according to my agreement with Miss Francis, but it was an icebreaker.
I got the pump and hose, collecting at the same time an audience of brats who assisted me by shouting, "What ya goin a do, mister?" "What's at thing for, mister?" "You goin a water Mrs Dinkman's frontyard, mister?" "Do your teeth awwis look so funny, mister? My grampa takes his teeth out at night and puts'm in a glass of water. Do you take out your teeth at night, mister?" "You goin a put that stuff on our garden too, mister?" "Hay, Shirley—come on over and see the funnylooking man who's fixing up Dinkman's yard."
They were untiring, shrilling their questions, exclamations and comments, completely driving from my mind the details of the actual application of the Metamorphizer. Anyway, Miss Francis had been concerned with putting it in the irrigation water—which didnt apply in this case. I thought a moment. A gallon was enough for thirty acres; half a pint should suffice for this—more than suffice. Irrigation water, nonsense—I'd squirt it on and tell the woman to hose it down afterward—that'd be the same as putting it in the water, wouldnt it?
To come to this practical conclusion under the brunt of the children's assault was a remarkable feat. As I dribbled the stuff over the sorry devilgrass they kicked the pump—and my shins—mimicking my actions, tripping me as they skipped under my legs, getting wet with the Metamorphizer—I hoped with mutually deleterious effect—and generally making me more than ever thankful for my bachelor condition.
Twofifty, I thought, angrily squirting a fine mist at a particularly dreary spot—and it isnt even selling. Manual labor. Working with my hands. I might as well be a gardener. College training. Wide experience. Alert and aggressive. In order to dribble stuff smelling sickeningly of carnations on a wasted yard. I coiled up my hose disgustedly and collected a reluctant five dollars.
"It don't look any different," commented Mrs Dinkman dubiously.
"Madam, Professor Francis' remarkable discovery works miracles, but not in the twinkling of an eye. In a week youll see for yourself, provided of course you wet it down properly."
"In a week youll be far gone with my five dollars," diagnosed Mrs Dinkman.
While this might be superficially true, it was an unfair and unkind thing to say, and it wounded me. I reached into my pocket and drew out an old card—one printed before I'd had an irreconcilable difference with the firm employing me at the time.
"I can always be reached at this address, Mrs Dinkman," I said, "should you have any cause for dissatisfaction—which I'm sure is quite impossible. Besides, I shall be daily in this district demonstrating the value of Dr Francis' Lawn Tonic."
That was certainly true; unless I made a better connection. Degrading manual labor or not, I intended to sell as many local people as possible on the strength of having found a weak spot in the wall of salesresistance before the effects of the Metamorphizer became apparent. For, in strict confidence, and despite its being an undesirable negative attitude, I was a little dubious that those effects—or lack of them—would stimulate further sales.
3. My alarmclock, as it did every morning, Sundays included, rang at sixthirty, for I am a man of habit. I turned it off, remembering instantly I had given Miss Francis neither her pump nor her share of the sale. Of course it was more convenient and timesaving to bring them both together and I was sure she didnt expect me to follow instructions to the letter, like an officeboy, any more in these matters than she had in her restriction to agricultural use.
Still, it was remiss of me. The fact is, I had spent her money as well as my own—not on dissipation, I hasten to say, but on dinner and an installment of my roomrent. This was embarrassing, but I looked upon it merely as an advance—quite as if I'd had the customary drawingaccount—to be charged against my next commissions. My acceptance of the advance merely indicated my faith in the future of the Metamorphizer.
I dissolved a yeastcake in a glass of water; it's very healthy and I'd heard it alleviated dermal irritations. Lathering my face, I glanced over the list culled from the dictionary and stuck in the mirror the night before, for I have never been too tired to improve my mind. By this easy method of increasing my vocabulary I had progressed, at the time, down to the letter K.
While drinking my coffee—never more than two cups—it was my custom to read and digest stock and bond quotations, for though I had no investments—the only time I had been able to take a flurry there was an unforeseen recession in the market—I thought a man who didnt keep up with trends and conditions unfitted for a place in the businessworld. Besides, I didnt expect to be straitened indefinitely and I believed in being ready to take proper advantage of opportunity when it came.
As a man may devote the graver part of his mind to a subject and then turn for relaxation to a lighter aspect, so I had for years been interested in a stock called Consolidated Pemmican and Allied Concentrates. It wasnt a highpriced issue, nor were its fluctuations startling. For six months of the year, year in and year out, it would be quoted at 1/16 of a cent a share; for the other six months it stood at 1/8. I didnt know what pemmican was and I didnt particularly care, but if a man could invest at 1/16 he could double his money overnight when it rose to 1/8. Then he could reverse the process by selling before it went down and so snowball into fortune. It was a daydream, but a harmless one.
Satisfying myself Consolidated Pemmican was bumbling along at its low level, I reluctantly prepared to resume Miss Francis' pump. It seemed less heavy as I wound the hose over my shoulder and I felt this wasnt due to the negligible quantity I'd expended on Mrs Dinkman's grass. I just knew I was going to have a successful day. I had to.
In moments of fancy I often think a salesman is more truly a creative artist than many of those who arrogate the title to themselves. He uses words, on one hand, and the receptivity of prospects on the other, to mold a cohesive and satisfying whole, a work of Art, signed and dated on the dotted line. Like any such work, the creation implies thoughtful and careful preparation. So it was that I got off the bus, polishing a new salestalk to fit the changed situation. "One of your neighbors ..." "I have just applied ..." I sneered my way past those houses refusing my services the day before; they couldnt have the Metamorphizer at any price now. Then it hit my eyes.
Mrs Dinkman's lawn, I mean.
The one so neglected, ailing and yellow only yesterday.
It wasnt sad and sickly now. The most enthusiastic homeowner wouldnt have disdained it. There wasnt a single bare spot visible in the whole lush, healthy expanse. And it was green. Green. Not just here and there, but over every inch of soft, undulating surface; a pale applegreen where the blades waved to expose its underparts and a rich, dazzling emerald on top. Even the runners, sinuously encroaching upon the sidewalk, were deeply virescent.
The Metamorphizer worked.
The Metamorphizer not only worked, but it worked with unbelievable rapidity. Overnight. I knew nothing about the speed at which ordinary fertilizers, plant stimulants or hormones took hold, but commonsense told me nothing like this had ever happened so quickly. I had been indulging in a little legitimate puffery in saying the inoculant worked miracles, but if anything that had been an understatement. It just went to show how impossible it is for a real salesman to be too enthusiastic.
Nerves in knees and fingers quivering, I walked over to join the group curiously inspecting the translated lawn. I, I had done this; out of the most miserable I'd made the loveliest—and for a paltry five dollars. I tried to recapture the memory of what it had looked like in order to relish the contrast more, but it was impossible; the vivid present blotted out the decayed past completely.
"Overnight," someone said. "Yessir, just overnight. Wouldnt of believed it if I hadnt noticed just yesterday how much worse an the city dump it looked."
"Bet at stuff's ten inches high."
"Brother, you can say that again. Foot'd be closer."
"Anyhow it's uh fattestlookin grass I seen sence I lef Texas."
"An the greenest. Guess I never did see such a green before."
While they exclaimed about the beauty and vigor of the growth, my mind was racing in high along practical lines. Achievement isnt worth much unless you can harness it, and in today's triumph I saw tomorrow's benefit. No more canvassing with a pump undignifiedly on my back, no more manual labor; no, bold as the thought was, not even any more direct selling for me. This was big, too big to be approached in any cockroach, build-up-slowly-from-the-bottom way. It was a real top deal, in a class with nylon or jukeboxes or bubblegum. You could smell the money in it.
First of all I'd have to tie Josephine Francis down with an ironclad contract. Agents; dealerships; distributors and a general salesmanager, Albert Weener, at the top. Incorporate. Get it all down in black and white and signed by Miss Francis right away. For her own good. An idealistic scientist, a frail woman, protect her from the vultures who'd try to rob her as soon as they saw what the Metamorphizer would do. Such a woman wouldnt have any business sense. I'd see she got a comfortable living out of it and free her from responsibility. Then she could potter around all she liked.
Incorporate. Interest big money. Put it on a nationwide basis. A cut for the general salesmanager on every sale. Besides stock. Take the patent in the company's name. In six months I'd be on my way to being a millionaire. I had certainly been right up on my toes in picking the Metamorphizer as a winner in spite of Miss Francis' kitchen and her lack of aggressiveness. Instinct, the unerring instinct of a wideawake salesman for the right product—and for the right market. I mustnt forget that. Had I been content with her original limitation I'd still be bumbling around trying to interest Farmer Hicks in some Metamorphizer for his hay.
"Ja notice how thick it was?"
"Well, that's Bermuda for you. Tell me they actually plant it on purpose in Florida."
"Yessir. Know one thing—even if it looks pretty right now, I wouldnt want that stuff on my place. Have to cut it every day."
"Bet ya. Toughlookin too. I rather take my exercise in bed."
That's an angle, I thought—have to get old lady Francis to modify her formula or something. Else we'll never get rich. Slow down the rate of growth, dilute it—ought to be more profitable too.... Have to find out how cheaply the inoculant can be produced—no more inefficient hand methods.... Of course the fastness of growth wouldnt affect the sale to farmers—help it in fact. No doubt she'd had more than I originally thought in that aspect, I conceded generously. We could let them apply it themselves ... mailorder advertising ... cut costs that way.... Think of clover and alfalfa—or werent they grasses? Anyway, imagine hay or wheat as tall as Iowa corn and corn higher than a smalltown cityhall! Fortune—there'd be a dozen fortunes in it.
I began perspiring. The deal was getting bigger and bigger. It wasnt just a simple matter of cutting in on a good thing. All the angles, which were multiplying at a tremendous rate, had to be covered before I saw Miss Francis again; I darent miss any bets. I needed a staff of agricultural experts—anyway someone who could cover the scientific side. Whatever happened to my freshman chemistry? And a mob of lawyers; you'd have to plug every loophole—tight. But here I was without a financial resource—couldnt hire a ditchdigger, much less the highpriced talent I needed—and someone else might get a brainstorm when he saw the lawn and beat me to it. I visioned myself cheated of my million....
Yes ... a really fast worker—some unethical promoter willing to stoop to devious methods—might pass at any moment and grasp the possibilities, have Miss Francis signed up before I'd even got the deal straight in my mind. How could he miss, seeing this lawn? Splendid, magnificent, beautiful. No one would ever call this stuff devilgrass—angelgrass would be more appropriate to the implications of such a heavenly green. Millions in it—simply millions....
"Say—arent you the fellow put this stuff on?"
Halfadozen vacant faces gaped at me, the burdening pump, the caudal hose. Curiosity, interest, imbecile amusement argued in their expression with the respect due the worker of the transformation; it was the sort of look connected with salesresistance of the most obstinate kind. They distracted me from thinking things through.
"Miz Dinkman's sure looking for you. Says she's going to sue you."
Here was an unfortunate development, an angle to end all angles. Unfavorable publicity, the abortifacient of new enterprises, would mean you could hardly give the stuff away. My imagination raced through columns of newsprint in which the Metamorphizer was made the butt of reporters' humor. Mrs Dinkman's ire would have to be placated, bought off. Perhaps I'd better discuss developments with Miss Francis right away, afterall.
Whatever I decided, it was advisable for me to leave this vicinity. I was in no financial position to soothe Mrs Dinkman and it was dubious, in view of her attitude, whether it would be possible to sell any more in the immediate neighborhood. Probably a new territory was the answer to my problem; a few sales would give me both cash in hand and time to think.
While I hesitated, Mrs Dinkman, belligerency dancing like a sparkling aura about her, came out of her garage with a rusty, rattling lawnmower. I'm no authority on gardentools, but this creaking, rickety machine was clearly no match for the lusty growth. The audience felt so too, and there was a stir of sporting interest as they settled down to watch the contest.
Determination was implicit in the sharply unnatural lines of her corset and the firm set of her glasses as she charged into the gently swaying runners. The wheels turned rebelliously, the mower bit, its rusty blades grated against the knife, something clanked forcibly and the machine stopped. Mrs. Dinkman pushed, her back arched with effort—the mower didnt budge. She pulled it back. It whirred gratefully; the clanking stopped and she tried again. This time it chewed a handful of grass from the edge, found it distasteful and quit once more.
"Anybody know how to make this damn thing work?" Mrs Dinkman asked exasperatedly.
"Needs oil" was helpfully volunteered.
She retired into the garage and returned with a lopsided oilcan. "Oil it," she commanded regally. The helpful one reluctantly pressed his thumb against the wry bottom of the can, aiming the twisted spout at odd parts of the mower. "I dunno," he commented.
"I don't either," said Mrs Dinkman. "You—Greener, Weener—whatever your name is!"
There was no possibility of evasion. "Yes, mam?"
"You made this stuff grow; now you can cut it down."
Uncouth guffaws from the watching idiots.
"Mrs Dinkman, I—"
"Get behind that lawnmower, young man, if you don't want to be involved in a lawsuit."
I wasnt afraid of such a consequence in itself, having at the moment nothing to attach, but I thought of Miss Francis and future sales and that impalpable thing known as "goodwill." "Yes, mam," I repeated.
I discarded pump and hose to move reluctantly toward the mower. Under my feet I felt the springiness of the grass; was it pure fancy—or did it truly differ in quality from the lawns I'd trod so indifferently the day before?
I took the handle. If oiling had improved the machine, its previous efficiency must have been slight. It went shakily over the first inch of grass and then, as it had for Mrs Dinkman, it stopped for me.
By now the spectators had increased to a small crowd and their dull humor had taken the form of cheerfully offering much gratuitous advice. "Tie into it, Slim—build up the old muscle." "Back her up and take a good run." "Go home an do some settinup exercises—come back next year." "Got to put the old back behind it, Bud—give her the gas." "Need a decent mower—no use trying to cut stuff like that with an antique." "Yeah—get a good mower—one made since the Civil War." "No one around here got an honestogod lawnmower?"
The last query evidently nettled local pride, for soon a blithe, beamshouldered little man trundled up a shiny, rubbertired machine. "Thisll do the business," he announced confidently as I relinquished the spotlight to him with understandable readiness. "It's a regular jimdandy."
It certainly was. The devilgrass came irreverently above the wheels and flowed with graceful inquisitiveness over the blades, but the brisk little man pushed heartily and the mechanism revolved with a barely audible clicking. It did not balk, complain or hesitate. Cleanly severed ends of grass whirled into the air and floated down on the neat smooth swath left behind. Everyone smiled relievedly at the jimdandy's triumph and my sigh was loudest and most heartfelt. I edged away as unobtrusively as I could.
4. I have no sympathy with weaklings who complain of the cards being stacked, but it did seem as though fate were dealing unkindly with me. Here was a good proposition, coming just at the time I needed it most and it was turning bad rapidly. Walking the short distance to Miss Francis' I was unable to settle my mind, to strike a mental balancesheet. There was money; there had to be money—lots and lots of it—in the Metamorphizer, but it was possible there was trouble—lots and lots of it—also. The thing was, well, dangerous. What was the use of expending ability in selling something which could have kickbacks acting as deterrents to future sales? Of course a man had to take risks....
The door, after a properly prudent hesitation, clicked brokenly. Miss Francis looked as though she'd added insomnia to her other abstentions, otherwise she had not changed, even to her skirt and the smudge on her left nostril. "If youve come about the icebox youre a week late. I fixed it myself," she greeted me gruffly.
"Weener," I reminded her, "Albert Weener—remember? I'm selling—that is, I'm going to sell the product you invented to make plants eat anything."
"Oh. Weener—yes." She produced the toothpick and scratched her chin with it. "About the Metamorphizer." She paused and rubbed her elbow. "A mistake, I'm afraid. An error."
Aha, I thought, a new deal. Someone's offered to back her. Steal her brainchild, negate all my efforts to make her independent and cheat me of the reward of my spadework. You wouldnt think of her as a frail credulous woman, easily taken in by the first smooth talker, but a woman is a woman afterall.
"Look, Miss Francis," I argued, "youve got a big thing here, a great thing. The possibilities are practically unlimited. Of course youll have to have a manager to put it across—an executive, a man with business experience—someone who can tap the great reservoir of buying power by the conviction of a new need. Organize a sales campaign; rationalize production. Put the whole thing on a commercial basis. For all this you need a man who has contacted the public on every level—preferably doortodoor and with a varied background."
She strode past the stove, which had gathered new accreta during the night and looked in the cloudy mirror as though searching for a misplaced thought. "No doubt, Weener, no doubt. But before all these romantically streamlined things eventuate there must be a hiatus. In my haste I overlooked a detail yesterday, trivial maybe—perhaps vital. I should never have let you start out so soon."
This was bad; I was struggling now for my job and for the future of the Metamorphizer. "Miss Francis, I don't know what you mean by mistakes or trivial details or how I could have started out too soon, but whatever the trouble is I'm sure it can be smoothed out easily. Sometimes, you know, obstacles which appear tremendous prove to be nothing at all in experienced hands. I myself have had occasion to put things right for a number of different concerns. Really, Miss Francis, you mustnt let opportunity slip through your fingers. Believe me, I know what a big thing your discovery is—Ive seen what it does."
She turned those too sharp eyes on me discomfortingly. "Ah," she said, "so soon?"
"Well," I began, "it certainly acted quickly ..."
I stopped when I saw she wasnt hearing me. She sat down in the only empty chair and drummed her fingers against big white teeth. "Even under a microscope," she muttered, "no perceptible reaction for fortyeight hours. Laboratory conditions? Or my own idiocy? But I approximated ..." Her voice trailed off and for a full minute the absolute silence of the kitchen was broken only by the melodramatic dripping of a tap.
She made an effort to pull herself together and addressed me in her old abrupt way. "Corn or wheat?"
"You said youve seen what it does. I asked you if you had applied it to corn or wheat—or what?"
She was looking at me so fixedly I had a slight difficulty in putting my words in good order. "It was neither, mam. I applied some of the stuff to a lawn—"
"A lawn, Weener?"
"But I said—"
"General instructions, Miss Francis. I'm sure you didnt mean to tie my hands."
Another long silence.
"No, Weener—I didnt mean to tie your hands."
"Well, as I was saying, I applied some of the stuff to a lawn. Exactly according to your instructions—"
"In the irrigation water?"
"Well, not precisely. But just as good, I assure you."
"A terrible lawn. All shot. Last night. This morning—"
"Stop. What kind of grass? Or don't you know?"
"Of course I know," I answered indignantly. Did she think I was an idiot? "It was devilgrass."
"Ah." She rubbed the back of her hand against her singularly smooth cheek. "Bermuda. Cynodon dactylon. Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could I have been so blind? Did I think only the corn would be affected and not the weeds in the furrows? Or that something like this might not happen?"
I didnt feel like wasting any more time listening to her soliloquy. "This morning," I continued, "it was as green—"
"All right, Weener, spare me your poetry. Show it to me."
"Well now, Miss Francis ..." I wanted, understandably enough, to discuss future arrangements before she saw Dinkman's lawn.
When dealing with childish persons you have to cater to their whims. I rid myself of the pump—I'd never dreamed I'd be reluctant to part with the monster—while she made perfunctory and unconvincing motions to fit herself for the street. Of course she neither washed nor madeup, but she peered in the glass argumentatively, pulled her jacket down decisively, threw her shoulders back to raise it askew again and gave the swirl of hair a halfhearted pat.
"I'd like to go over the matter of organizing—"
I was naturally reluctant to be seen on the street with so conspicuous a figure, but I could hardly escape. I tried to match her swinging stride, but as she was at least six inches taller I had to give a sort of skip between steps, which was less than dignified. Searching my mind to find a tactful approach again to the subject of proper distribution of the Metamorphizer, I felt my opportunity slipping away every moment. She, on her part, was silent and so abstracted that I often had to put out a guiding hand to avert collision with other pedestrians or stationary objects.
I doubt if I'd been gone from Mrs Dinkman's threequarters of an hour. I had left a small group excited at the free show consequent upon the too successful beautification of a local eyesore; I returned to a sizable crowd viewing an impressive phenomenon. The homely levity had vanished; no one shouted jovial advice. Opinions and comments passed in whispers accompanied by furtive glances toward the lawn, as though it were sentient and might be offended by rude speculation. As we pushed through the bystanders I was suddenly aware of their cautious avoidance of contact with the grass itself. The nearest onlookers stood a respectful yard back and when unbalanced by the push of those behind went through such antics to avoid treading on it, while at the same time preserving the convention of innocence of any taboo that they frequently pivoted and pirouetted on one foot in an awkward ballet. The very hiding of their inhibition emphasized the new awesomeness of the grass; it was no longer to be lightly approached or frivolously treated.
Now I am not what is generally called a man of religious sensibilities, having long ago discarded belief in the supernatural; and I am not overcome at odd moments by mystical feelings. Furthermore I had been intimate with this particular patch of vegetation for some eighteen hours. I had viewed its decaying state; I had injected life into it; I had seen it in the first flush of resurrection. In spite of all this, I too fell under the spell of the grass and knew something compounded of wonder and apprehension.
The neatly cut swaths of the little man with the jimdandy mower came to a dramatic end in the middle of the yard. Beyond this shorn portion the grass rose in a threatening crest, taller than a man's knees; green, aloof and derisive. But it was not this forbidding sight which gave me such a queer turn. It was the mown part; for I recalled how the brisk man's machine had cut close and left behind short, crisp stems. Now this piece was almost as high as when I'd first seen it—grown faster in an hour than ordinary grass in a month.
5. I stole a look at Miss Francis to see how she was taking the sight, but there was no emotion visible on her face. The toothpick was once more in play and the luminous eyes fixed straight ahead. Her legs were spread apart and she seemed firmly in position for hours to come, as though she would wait for the grass to exhaust its phenomenal growth.
"Why did they quit cutting?" I asked the man standing beside me.
"Mower give out—dulled the blades so they wouldnt cut no more."
"Going to give up and let it grow?"
"Hell, no. Sent for a gardener with a powermower. Big one. Cut anything. Ought to be here now."
He was, too, honking the crowd from the driveway. Mrs Dinkman was with him, looking at once indignant, persecuted, uncomfortable and selfrighteous. It was evident they had failed to reach any agreement.
The gardener slammed the door of the senescent truck with vehement lack of affection. "I cut lots a devilgrass, lady, but I won't tie into this overgrown stuff at that price. You got no right to expect it. I know what's fair and it's not reasonable to count on me cutting this like it was an ordinary lawn. You know yourself it isnt fair."
"I'll give you ten dollars and that's my last word."
"Listen, lady, when I get through this job I'll have to take my mower apart and have it resharpened. You think I can afford to do that for a tendollar job?"
"Ten dollars," repeated Mrs Dinkman firmly.
The gardener appealed to the gallery. "Listen, folks: now I ask you—is this fair? I'm willing to be reasonable. I understand this lady's in trouble and I'm willing to help, but I can't do a twentyfivedollar job for ten bucks, can I?"
It was doubtful if the observers were particularly concerned with justice; what they desired was action, swift and drastic. A general resentment at being balked of their amusement was manifest in murmurs of "Go ahead, do it." "What's the matter with you?" "Don't be dumb—do it for nothing—youll get plenty business out of it." They appealed to his nobler and baser natures, but he remained adamant.
Not to be balked by his churlishness, they passed a hat and collected $8.67, which I thought a remarkably generous admission price. When this was added to Mrs Dinkman's ten dollars the gardener, still protesting, reluctantly agreed to perform.
Mrs Dinkman prudently holding the total, he unloaded the powermower with many flourishes, making quite an undertaking of oiling and adjusting the roller, setting the blades; bending down to assure himself of the gasoline in the small tank, finally wheeling the contraption into place with great spirit. The motor started with a disgruntled put! changing into a series of resigned explosions as he guided it over the lawn crosswise to the lines of his predecessor. Miss Francis followed every motion with rapt attention.
"Did you expect this?" I asked.
"Ay? The abnormally stimulated growth, you mean?"
"Yes and no. Work in the laboratory didnt indicate it. My own fault; I didnt realize at once making available so much free nitrogen would have such instant results. But last night—"
"Not now. Later."
The powermower went nicely, I might almost say smoothly, over the stuff cut before, muttering and chickling happily to itself as it dragged the panting gardener, inescapably harnessed, in its wake. But the mown area was narrow and the machine quickly jerked through it and made the last easy journey along the wall of untouched devilgrass beyond.
The gardener, without hesitation, aimed his machine at the thicket of grass. It growled, slowed, coughed, spat, struggled and thrashed on and finally conked out.
"Ah," said Miss Francis.
"Oh," said the spectators.
"Sonofabitch," said the gardener.
He yanked the grumbling mower back angrily, inspecting its mechanism in the manner of a mother with a wayward son and began again. There was desperate determination in his shoulders as he added his forward thrust to the protesting rhythm. The machine went at the grass like a bulldog attacking a borzoi: it bit, chewed, held on. It cut a new six inches readily, another foot slowly—and then with jolts and misfires and loud imprecations from the gardener, it gave up again.
"You," judged Mrs Dinkman, "don't know how to cut grass."
The gardener wiped his sweaty forehead with the inside of his wrist. "You—you should have a law against you," he answered bitterly and inadequately.
But the crowd evidently agreed with Mrs Dinkman's verdict, for there were mutterings of "It's a farmer's job." "Get somebody with a scythe." "That's right—get a scythe." "Got to have a scythe to cut hay like that." These remarks, uttered loudly enough for him to hear, so discouraged the gardener that after three more futile tries he reloaded his equipment and left amidst jeers and expressions of disfavor without attempting to collect any of the money.
For some reason the failure of the powermower lightened the atmosphere. Everyone, including Mrs Dinkman, seemed convinced that scything was the solution. Tension relaxed and the bystanders began talking in something above a whisper.
6. "This will just about ruin our sales," I said.
Miss Francis suspended the toothpick before her chin and looked at me as though I'd said dirty words in the presence of ladies.
"Well it will," I argued. "You can't expect people to have their lawns inoculated if they find out it's going to make grass act this way."
Her eyes might have been microscopes and I something smeared on a slide. "Weener, youre the sort of man who peddles Life Begins at Forty to the inmates of an old peoples' home."
I couldnt see what had upset her. The last idea had sound salesappeal, but it was a low income market.... Oh well—her queer notions and obscure reactions undoubtedly went with her scientific gift. You have to lead individuals of this type for their own good, otherwise they spend their lives wandering around in a dreamy fog, accomplishing nothing.
"I still believe youve got something," I pointed out. "You yourself said it wasnt perfected, but perhaps you havent realized how far from marketable it actually is yet. Now then," I went on reasonably, "youre just going to have to dilute it or change it or do something to it, so while it will make grass nice and green, it won't let it grow wild like this."
The fixed look could be annoying. It was nearly impossible to turn your eyes away without rudeness once she caught them. "Weener, the Metamorphizer is neither fertilizer nor plant food. It is a chemical compound producing a controlled mutation in any treated member of the family Gramineae. Dilution might make it not work—the mutation might not take place—but it couldnt make it half work. I could change your nature by forcibly injecting an ounce of lead into your cerebellum. The change would not only be irrevocable, but it wouldnt make the slightest difference if the lead were adulterated with ironpyrites or not."
"But, Miss Francis," I expostulated, "you'll have to do something."
She threw her hands into the air, a theatrical gesture even more than ordinarily unbecoming. "Why?"
"Why? To make your discovery marketable, of course."
"Now? In the face of this?"
"Miss Francis," I said with dignity, "you are a lady and my selfrespect makes me treat you with the courtesy due your sex. You advertised for a salesman. Instead of sneering at my honest efforts to put your merchandise across to the public, I think youd be better advised to worry about such lowbrow things as keeping faith."
"Am I to keep faith in a vacuum? You came to me as a salesman and I must give you something to sell. This is simple morality; but if such a grant entails concomitant evils, surely I am absolved of my original contract."
"I don't know what youre talking about," I told her frankly. "Your stuff made the grass grow too fast, that's all. You should change the formula or find a new one or else ..."
"Or else youll have been left with nothing to sell. I despair of making the point about changing the formula; your trust in my powers is too reverent. Again, I'm not an arrogant woman and I'll admit to some responsibility. Make the world fit for Alfred Weener to make a living in."
"It's Albert, not Alfred," I corrected her. I'm not touchy, goodness knows, but afterall a name's a piece of property.
"Your pardon, Albert." She looked down at me with such a placatory and genuinely feminine smile I decided I'd been foolish to be offended. She's a nut of course, I thought indulgently, someone whose life is bounded by theories and testtubes, a woman with no conception of practical reality. Instead of being affronted it would be better to show her patiently how essential my help was to her.
"Of all people," she went on, searching my face with those discomfiting eyes, "of all people Ive the least cause for moral snobbery. Anxious to get a few dollars to carry on my work—and what was such anxiety but selfindulgence?—I threw the Metamorphizer to you and the world before I realized that it was not only imperfect, but faulty. Hell is paved with good intentions and the first result of my desire to benefit mankind has been to injure the Dinkmans. Meditation in place of infatuation would have shown me both the immediate and ultimate wrongs. I doubt if youd been gone an hour yesterday when I knew I'd made a blunder in permitting you to go out with danger in both hands."
"I don't know what youre getting at," I said stiffly, for it sounded as though she were regarding me as a child.
"Why, as I was sitting, composing my thoughts toward extending the effectiveness of the Metamorphizer beyond gramina, it suddenly became clear to me I'd erred about not knowing how long the effect of the inoculations would last."
"You mean you found out?" If she brought the thing under control and the effect lasted a specified time there might be repeat business afterall.
"I found out a great deal by using speculation and logic for a change instead of my hands and memory. I sat and thought, and though this is an unorthodox way for a scientist to proceed, I profited by it. I reasoned: if you change the genetic structure of a plant you change it permanently; not for a day or an hour, but for its existence. I'm not speaking of chance mutations, you understand, Weener, coming about over a course of generations, generations which include sports, degenerates, atavars andsoforth; but of controlled changes, brought about through human intervention. Inoculation by the Metamorphizer might be compared to cutting off a man's leg or transplanting part of his brain. Albert—what happens when you cut off a man's leg?"
I was tired of being talked to like a grammarschool class. Still, I humored her. "Why, then he has only one leg," I answered agreeably if idiotically.
"True. More than that, he has a onelegged disposition. His whole ego, his entire spirit is changed. No longer a twolegged creature, reduced, he is another—warped, if you like—being. To come to the immediate point of the grass: if you engender an omnivorous capacity you implant an insatiable appetite."
"I don't catch."
"If you give a man a big belly you make him a hog."
A chevvy coupe, gently breathing steam from its radiator cap, interrupted. From its turtle hung the blade of a scythe and on the nervously hinged door had been hopefully lettered Arcangelo Barelli, Plowing & Grading.
While the coupe was trembling for some seconds before quieting down, I sighed a double relief, at Miss Francis' forgetfulness of the money due her and the soothing of my fears for the lawn's eating its way downward to China or India. The remark about gluttonous abdomens was disturbing.
"And of course there will be no further sale of the Metamorphizer," she concluded, her eyes now totally concerned with the farmer who was opening the turtle with the air of a man expecting to be unpleasantly astonished.
Mr Barelli came as to a deathbed, a consoling but hopeless smile widening his narrow face only inconsiderably. At the scythe cradled in his arms someone shouted, "Here's old Father Time himself." Mr Barelli wasnt amused. Brushing his forehead thoughtfully with tender fingers he surveyed with saddened eye the three graduated steps of grass. The last step, unessayed by his predecessors, rose nearly four feet, as alien to the concept of lawn as a field of wheat.
"Think you can cut it?" one of the audience asked.
Mr Barelli smiled cheerlessly and didnt answer. Instead, he uprooted from his hip pocket a slender stone and began phlegmatically to caress the blade of the scythe with it.
"Hay, that stuff's not goin to stop growin while you fool around."
"Got to do things right," explained Mr Barelli gently.
The rhythmic friction of stone against steel prolonged suspense unbearably. All kinds of speculation crowded my mind while the leisurely performance went on. The grass was growing rapidly; faster than vegetation had ever grown before. Could it grow so quickly the farmer's scythe couldnt keep up with it? Suppose it had been wheat or corn? Planted today, it would be ready to harvest next week, fully ripe. The original dream of Miss Francis would pale compared with the reality. There was still—somewhere, somehow—a fortune in the Metamorphizer....
Ready at last, Mr Barelli walked delicately across the stubble as if it were a substance too precious to be trampled brutally. Again he measured the rippling, ascending mass with his eye. It was the look of a bridegroom.
"What you waitin for?"
Unheeding, he scraped bootwelt semicircularly on the sward as though to mark a stance. Once more he appraised the grass, crooked his knee, rested his hands lightly on the two short, upraised handholds. Satisfied at length with his preparations, he finally drew the scythe back with a sweeping motion of both arms and curved it forward close to the ground. It embraced a sudden island lovingly and a sheaf of grass swooned into a heap. I was reminded of old woodcuts in a history of the French Revolution.
The bystanders sighed in harmony. "Nothing to it ... should a had him in the first place ... can't beat the old elbowgrease. No, sir, musclepower'll do it every time ... guess it's licked now all right, all right...." Mr Barelli duplicated his sweep and another sheaf fell. Another. And another....
"One of the oldest human rituals," remarked Miss Francis, swaying her body in time with the farmer's. "An act of devotion to Ceres. But all this husbandman reaps is Cynodon dactylon. A commentary."
"Progress," I pointed out. "Now they have machines to harvest grain. All uptodate farmers use them; only the backward ones stick to primitive tools and have to make a living by taking on odd jobs."
"Progress," she repeated, looking from the scythewielder to me and back again. "Progress, Weener. A remarkable conception of the nineteenth century...."
The less intense spectators began to move off; not, to be sure, without backward glances, but the metronomic swing of Mr Barelli's blade indicated it was all over with the rank grass now. I too should have been on my way, writing off the Metamorphizer as a total loss and considering methods for making a new and more profitable connection. Not that I was one to leave a sinking ship, nor had I lost faith in the potentialities of Miss Francis' discovery; but she either wasnt smart enough to modify her formula, or else ... but there really wasnt any "or else". She just wasnt smart enough to make the Metamorphizer marketable and she was cheating me of the handsome return which should be rightfully mine.
She'd made the stuff and deceived me by an unscrupulously worded advertisement, now, no longer interested, she asked airily if further effort were essential. Who wouldnt be indignant? And to cap it all she suddenly ejaculated, "Can't dawdle around here all day" and after snatching up a handful of the scythings, she left, rolling her large body from side to side, galloping her untidy hair up and down over her neck as she took rapid strides. Evidently the attractions of her messy kitchen were more to her taste than the wholesome air of outdoors. Pottering around, producing another mare's nest and eventually, I suppose, getting another victim....
7. But I couldnt leave so cavalierly. Every leaf, stem, and blade of the cancerous grass held me in somewhat the same way Miss Francis' intense eyes did. It wasnt an aesthetic or morbid attraction—its basis was strictly practical. If it could have been controlled—if only the growth could be induced on a modified and proper scale—what a product! A fury of frustration rocked my customary calm....
The stretch and retraction of the mower's arms, the swift, bright curving as the scythe cut deeper, fascinated me. An unscrupulous man—just as a whimsical thought—might go about in the night inoculating lawns surreptitiously and appear with a crew next day to offer his services in cutting them. Just goes to show how easy it is to make dishonest speculations ... but of course such things don't pay in the long run....
The lush area was being reduced, but perhaps not with the same rapidity as at first when Mr Barelli was at the top of enthusiastic—if the adjective was applicable—vigor. Oftener and oftener and oftener he paused to sharpen his implement and I thought the cropped shocks were becoming smaller and smaller. As the movement of the scythe swept the guillotined grass backward, the trailing stolons entangled themselves with the uncut stand, pulling the sheaves out of place and making the stacks ragged and inadequate looking.
Behind me a cocky voice asked, "What's cooking around here, chum?"
I turned round to a young man, thin as a bamboo pole, elegantly tailored, who yawned to advertise gold inlays. I explained while he looked skeptical, bored and knowing simultaneously. "Who would tha flummox, bah goom?" he inquired.
He took a pack of playingcards from his pocket and riffled them expertly. "Who you kidding, bud?" he translated.
"No one. Ask anybody here if this wasnt a dead lawn yesterday and if it hasnt grown this high since morning."
He yawned again and proffered me the deck. "Pick any card," he suggested. To avoid rudeness I selected one. He put the pack back and said, "You have the nine of diamonds. Clever, eh?"
I didnt know whether it was or not. He accepted the pasteboard from me and said, peering out from under furry black eyebrows, "If I brought in a story like that, the chief would fire me before you could say James Gordon Bennett."
"Youre a reporter?"
"Acute chap. Newspaperman. Name of Gootes. Jacson Gootes, Daily Intelligencer, not Thrilling Wonder Stories."
I thought I saw an answer to my most pressing problem. One has to stoop occasionally to methods which, if they didnt lead to important ends, might almost be termed petty; but afterall there was no reason Mr Jacson Gootes shouldnt buy me a dinner in return for information valuable to him. "Let's get away from here," I suggested.
He fished out a coin, showed it to me, waved his arm in the air and opened an empty palm for my inspection. "Ah sho would like to, cunnel, but Ahve got to covah thisyeah sto'y—even if it's out of this mizzble wo'ld."
"I'm sure I can give you details to bring it down to earth," I told him. "Make it a story your editor will be glad to have."
"'Glad'!" He pressed tobacco into a slender pipe as emaciated as himself. "You don't know W R. If he got a beat on the story of Creation he'd be sore as hell because God wanted a byline."
He evidently enjoyed his own quip for he repeated several times in different accents "... God wanted a byline." He puffed a matchflame and surveyed the field of Mr Barelli's effort. "Hardworkin feller, what? Guess I better have a chat with the bounder—probably closest to the dashed thing."
"Mr Gootes," I said impressively, "I am the man who applied the inoculator to this grass. Now shall we get out of here so you can listen to my story?"
"Sonabeesh—thees gona be good. Lead away, amigo—I prepare both ears to leesten."
I drew him toward Hollywood Boulevard and into a restaurant I calculated might not be too expensive for his generosity. Besides, he probably had an expenseaccount. We put a porcelaintopped table between us and he commanded, "Give down." Obediently I went over all the happenings of yesterday, omitting only Miss Francis' name and the revealing wording of the ad.
Gootes surveyed me interestedly. "You certainly started something here, Acne and/or Psoriasis."
Humor like his was beneath offense. "My name's Albert Weener."
"Mine's Mustard." He produced a plastic cup and rapidly extracted from it a series of others in diminishing sizes. "I wouldnt have thought it to look at you. The dirty deed, I mean—not the exzemical hotdog. O K, Mister Weener—who's this scientific magnate? Whyre you holding him out on me?"
"Scientists don't like to be disturbed in their researches," I temporized.
"No more does a man in a whorehouse," he retorted vulgarly. "Story's no good without him."
That was what I thought and I'm afraid my satisfaction appeared on my face.
"Now leely man—no try a hold up da press. Whatsa matter, you aready had da beer and da roasta bif sanawich?"
"Maybe you better repeat the order. You know in these cheap places they don't like to have you sit around and talk without spending money."
"Money! Eh, laddie—I'm nae a millionaire." He balanced a full glass of water thoughtfully upon a knifeblade, looking around for applause. When it was not forthcoming he meekly followed my suggestion.
"Listen, Gootes," I swallowed a mouthful of sandwich and sipped a little beer. "I want to help you get your story."
He waved his hand and pulled a handkerchief out of his ear.
"The point is," I commenced, sopping a piece of bread in the thick gravy, "if I were to betray the confidence involved I couldnt hope to continue my connection and I'd lose my chances to benefit from this remarkable discovery."
"Balls," exclaimed Gootes. "Forget the spiel. I'm not a prospect for your lawn tonic."
I disregarded the interruption. "I'm not a mercenary man and I believe in enlightening the public to the fullest extent compatible with decency. I'm willing to make a sacrifice for the general good, yet I—"
"—'must live.' I know, I know. How much?"
"It seems to me fifty dollars would be little enough—"
"Fifty potatoes!" He went through an elaborate pantomime of shock, horror, indignation, grotesque dismay and a dozen other assorted emotions. "Little man, youre fruitcake sure. W R wouldnt part with half a C for a tipoff on the Secondcoming. No, brother—you rang the wrong bell. Five I might get you—but no more."
I replied firmly I was not in need of charity—ignoring his pointed look at the remains on my plate—and this was strictly a business proposition, payment for value received. After some bargaining he finally agreed to phone his managingeditor and propose I'd "come clean" for twenty dollars. While he was on this errand I added pie and coffee to the check. It is well to be provident and I'd paid for my meal in more than money.
Jacson Gootes came limply from the phonebooth, his bumptiousness gone. "No soap." He shook his head dejectedly. "Old Man said only pity for the lower mammals prevented him from letting me go to work for Hearst right away. Sorry."
His nerves appeared quite shattered; capable of restoration only by Old Grandad. After tossing down a couple of bourbons he seemed a little recovered, but hardly quite well enough to use an accent or perform a trick.
"I'm sorry also," I said. "Since we can be of no further use to each other—"
"Don't take a powder, chum," he urged plaintively. "What about a last gander at the weed together?"
As we walked back I reflected that at any rate I was saved from submitting Miss Francis to vulgar publicity. Everything is for the best—Ive seen a hundred instances to prove it. Perhaps—who knew—something might yet happen to make it possible for me to profit by the freak growth.
"Needs a transfusion," remarked Gootes as we stood on the sidewalk before it.
Indeed it was anemically green; uneven, hacked and ragged; shorn of its emerald beauty. A high fog filtered the late afternoon light to show Mr Barelli's task accomplished and the curious watchers gone. It was no smoothly clipped carpet, yet it was no longer a freakish, exotic thing. Rather forlorn it looked, and crippled.
"Paleface pay out much wampum to get um cut every day."
"Oh, it probably won't take long till the strength is exhausted."
"Says you. Well, Ive got half a story. Cheerio."
I sighed. If only Miss Francis could control it. A fortune ...
I walked home, trying to figure out what I was going to do tomorrow.
8. I thought I was prepared for anything after the shocks of the day before; I know I was prepared for nothing at all—to find the grass as I'd left it or even reverted to its original decay. Indeed, I was not too sure that my memory was completely accurate; that the thing had happened so fantastically.
But the devilgrass had outdone itself and made my anticipations foolish. It waved a green crest higher than the crowd—a crowd three times the size of yesterday's and increasing rapidly. All the scars inflicted on it, the indignities of scythe and mower, were covered by a new and even more prodigious stand which made all its former growth appear puny. Bold and insolent, it had repaired the hackedout areas and risen to such a height that, except for a narrow strip at the top, all the windows of the Dinkman house were smothered. Of the garage, only the roof, islanded and bewildered, was visible, apparently resting on a solid foundation of devilgrass. It sprawled kittenishly, its deceptive softness faintly suggesting fur; at once playful and destructive. My optimism of the night before was dashed; this voracious growth wasnt going to dwindle away of itself. It would have to be killed, rooted out.
Now the Dinkman lawn wasnt continuous with its neighbors, but, until now, had been set off by chesthigh hedges. The day before these had contained and defined the growth, but, overwhelming them in the night, the grass had swept across and invaded the neat, civilized plots behind, blurring sharply cut edges, curiously investigating flowerbeds, barbarously strangling shapely bushes.
But these werent the ravages which upset me; it was reasonable if not entirely comfortable to see shrubbery, plants and blossoms swallowed up. Work of men's hands they may be, but they bear the imprimatur of nature. The cement sidewalk, however, was pure artifice, stamped with the trademark of man. Indignity and defeat were symbolized by its overrunning; it was an arrogant defiance, an outrageous challenge offered to every man happening by. But the grass was not satisfied with this irreverence: it was already making demands on curbing and gutter.
"Junior, youve got a story now. W R fired three copyboys and a proofreader he was so mad at himself. Here." Jacson Gootes made a pass in the air, simulated astonishment at the twentydollar bill which appeared miraculously between his fingers and put it in my hand.
"Thank you," I replied coolly. "Just what is this for?"
"Faith, me boy, such innocence Ive never seen since I left the old sod. Tis but a little token of esteem from himself, to repay you for the trouble of leading me to your scientist, your Frankenstein, your Burbank. Lead on, my boy. And make it snappy, brother," he added, "because Ive got to be back here for the rescue."
"Yeah. People in the house." He consulted a scrap of paper. "Pinkman—"
"Dinkman. Yeah—thanks—no idea how sensitive people are when you get their names wrong. Dinkmans phoned the firedepartment. Can't get out. Rescue any minute—got to cover that—imperative—TRAPPED IN HOME BY FREAK LAWN—and nail down your scientist at the same time."
I was very anxious myself to see what would happen here so I suggested, since I could take him to the discoverer of the Metamorphizer any time, that we'd better stay and get the Dinkman story first. With overenthusiastic praise of my acuteness, he agreed and began practicing his sleightofhand tricks to the great pleasure of some children, the same ones, I suspect, who had plagued me when I was spraying the lawn.
His performance was terminated by the rapidly approaching firesiren. The crowd seemed of several minds about the purpose of the red truck squealing around the corner to a stop. Some, like Gootes, had heard the Dinkmans were indeed trapped in the house; others declared the firemen had come to cut away the grass onceandforall; still others held the loud opinion that the swift growth had generated a spontaneous combustion.
But having made their abrupt face-in-the-ground halt, the truck (or rather the firemen on it) anticlimactically did nothing at all. Helmeted and accoutered, ready for instant action, they relaxed contentedly against the engine, oblivious of grass, bystanders, or presumable emergency. Gootes strolled over to inquire the cause of their indolence. "Waiting for the chief," he was informed. Thereupon he borrowed a helmet (possibly on the strength of his presscard) and proceeded to pull from it such a variety of objects that he received the final accolade from several of his audience when they told him admiringly he ought to be on the stage.
The bystanders were not seduced by this entertainment into approval of the firemen's idleness and inquired sarcastically why they had left their cots behind or if they thought they were still on WPA? The men remained impervious until the chief jumped out of his red roadster and surveyed the scene napoleonically. "Thought somebody was pulling a rib," he explained to no one in particular. "All right, boys, there's folks in that house—let's get them out."
Carrying a ladder the men plunged toward the house. Their boots trod the sprawling runners heavily, spurning and crushing them carelessly. The grass responded by flowing back like water, sloshing over ankles and lapping at calves, thoroughly entangling and impeding progress. Panting and struggling the firemen penetrated only a short way into the mass before they were slowed almost to a standstill. From the sidelines it seemed as though they were wrestling with an invisible octopus. Feet were lifted high, but never free of the twining vegetation; the ladder was pulled angrily forward, but the clutch of the grass upon it became firmer with every tug.
At length they were halted, although their efforts still gave an appearance of advance. Thrashing and wrenching they urged themselves and the now burdensome ladder against the invincible wall. The only result was to give the illusion they were burying themselves in the clutching tentacles. Exertions dwindled; the struggle grew less intense; then they retreated, fighting their way out of the enveloping mass in a panic of desperation, abandoning the ladder.
The chief surveyed them with less than approbation. "Cut your way in," he ordered. "You guys think those axes are only to bust up furniture with?"
Obediently, wedges of bright steel flashed against the green wall.
"Impatiently I await the rescue of fair Dinkmans from this enchanted keep," murmured Gootes, vainly trying to balance his pipe on the back of his hand.
It looked as though he would have to contain his impatience for some time. The firemen slashed unenthusiastically at the grass, which gave way only grudgingly and by inches. Halfanhour later they triumphantly dragged out the abandoned ladder. "Stuff's like rubber—bounds back instead of cutting."
"Yeah. And in the meantime those people been telephoning again. Want to know what the delay is. Want to know what they pay taxes for. Threaten to sue the city."
"Let'm sue. Long as theyre in there they can't collect."
"Funny as a flat tire. Get going, goldbrick."
9. Another firetruck rolled up and there was much kidding back and forth between the two crews. This was clearly no situation in which lives or property were at stake; it was rather in line with assisting distraught cats down from tops of telephonepoles or persuading selfimmolated children to unlock the bathroom door and let mommy in; an amusing interval in a tense day. Perhaps those manning the second truck were more naturally ingenious, possibly the original workers sought more diverting labor; at any rate the futile chopping was abandoned. Instead, several long ladders were hooked together and the synthesis lowered from the curb to the edge of Dinkman's roof. It seemed remarkably fragile, but it reached and the watchers murmured approval.
No longer beset by novelty, the men took easily to the swaying, sagging bridge. They passed over the baffled grass, the leader carrying another short ladder which he hung from the roof, stabbing its lower rungs down into the matted verdure below. The crossing was made with such insouciance the wonder was they hadnt done it at first, instead of wasting time on other expedients.
The firemen went down the vertical ladder and forced an entrance into the choked windows. Mrs Dinkman came out first, helped by two of them. She kept pinching her glasses into place with one hand and pulling her skirt modestly close with the other, activities leaving her very little to grasp the ladder with. The firemen seemed quite accustomed to this sort of irrationality, and paying no heed to the rush of words—inaudible to us on the street—bursting from her, they coaxed her expertly up onto the roof. Here she stood, statuesquely outlined against the bright sky, berating her succorers, until Mr Dinkman, rounded, bald, and calm, joined her.
At first Mrs Dinkman refused to try the bridge to the street, but after some urging which was conveyed to us by the gestures of the firemen, she ventured gingerly on the trembling ladders only to draw back quickly. One of the firemen demonstrated the ease and simplicity of the journey, but it was vain; Mrs Dinkman was carried across gallantly in traditional movie style, with Mr Dinkman and the crew following sedately behind.
"A crime," Mrs Dinkman was saying when she came within earshot. "A crime. Malicious mischief. Ought to be locked up for life."
"Don't upset yourself, my dear," urged Mr Dinkman. "It's very distressing, but afterall it might be worse."
"'Worse'! Adam Dinkman, has misfortune completely unhinged your mind? Money thrown in the gutter—imposed on by oily rascals—our house swallowed up by this ... this unnatural stuff—and the final humiliation of being pulled out of our own home in front of a gawking crowd." She turned around and shouted, "Shoo, shoo—why don't you go home?" And then to Mr Dinkman again, "'Worse' indeed! I'd like to know what could be worse?"
"Well now—" began Mr Dinkman; but I didnt hear the rest, for I was afraid by "rascals" Mrs Dinkman referred, quite unjustly, to me and I thought the time opportune to remind Gootes he hadnt yet completed his assignment.
"Right," he agreed, suddenly assuming the abrupt accents of an improbable Englishman, "oh very right, old chap. Let's toddle along and see what Fu Manchu has to say for himself. First off though I shall have to phone in to Fleet Street—I mean to W R."
"Fine. You can ask him at the same time to authorize you to give me the other thirty."
Gootes lost his British speech instantly. "What other thirty, bum?"
"Why, the balance of the fifty. For an introduction to Mi—to the maker of the Metamorphizer. To compensate me, you know, for my loss of revenue."
"Weener, you have all the earmarks of a castiron moocher. Let me tell you, suh—such methods are unbecoming. They suggest damyankee push and blackmail. Remember Reconstruction and White Supremacy, suh."
If I were hypersensitive to the silly things people say, I should have given up selling long before. I pretended not to hear him. We walked into a drugstore and he dropped a nickel into a payphone, hunching the receiver between ear and shoulder. "Fifty your last word?" he asked out of the corner of his mouth.
"Hello? 'Gencer? Gootes. Hya, beautiful? Syphilis all cleared up? Now ... now, baby ... well, if youre going to be formal—gimme W R." He turned to me and leered while he waited.
"... Chief? Gootes. Got the Dinkman story. You know—Freak Growth Swallows Hollywood Mansion. Yeah. Yeah. I know. But, Chief—this was what I wanted you for—on the followup; I have the fellow who put the stuff on the grass. Yeah. Sure I did. Yeah. And the sonofabitch wants to hold us up for another thirty. Or else he won't sing. Yeah. Yeah. I know. But I can't, Chief. I havent got a lead. I don't know, Chief, not much of a one, I guess. Wait a minute."
He turned to me. "Listen, little man: Mr Le ffacase"—he pronounced it l'fassassy and he pronounced it with awe. I too was properly solemn, for I hadnt realized before to whom he referred when he talked so lightly of "W R." I knew—as what newspaper reader didnt—of William Rufus Le ffacase, "The Last of the Great Editors," but I hadnt connected him with the Daily Intelligencer— "—Mr Le ffacase will shoot you another sawbuck and no more. What's the deal?"
Now, the famous editor's reputation was such that you didnt tell him to go to the devil, even through the medium of an agent; it would have been like writing your name on the Lincoln Memorial. It was reluctantly therefore that I shook my head. "I'm sorry, Mr Gootes," I apologized, "I'd certainly like to oblige—"