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“The Test”, written by Richard Matheson (1954)
In a society governed by productivity and consumerism it is increasingly difficult to live with the elderly who are useless and burdensome and dependent
Your old father, like everyone else’s old father, must undergo a regular test to determine whether his life is of some benefit to “society”.
In a society governed by productivity and consumerism, it is increasingly difficult to live with the elderly who are useless and burdensome and dependent.
Everyone considered “old” should be obliged by law to take a test where his or her intellectual and physical abilities would be assessed. The test result will determine whether or not they have the right to continue living. Those who fail are to be euthanised.
The above is the gist of The Test, a short story written in 1954 by Richard Matheson1. The story projects the action into a future that is already our past, the year of 2003. Thank you, Mr. Michel Houellebecq, for pointing out The Test to me in your article titled The European Way to Die: On Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.2
A word of warning is necessary: The Test might not be for the faint-hearted.
The Test, written by Richard Matheson in 19543
The night before the test, Les helped his father study in the dining room. Jim and Tommy were asleep upstairs and, in the living room, Terry was sewing, her face expressionless as the needle moved with a swiftly rhythmic piercing and drawing.
Tom Parker sat very straight, his lean, vein-ribbed hands clasped together on the table top, his pale blue eyes looking intently at his son’s lips as though it might help him to understand better.
He was 80 and this was his fourth test.
“All right,” Les said, reading from the sample test Doctor Trask had gotten them. “Repeat the following sequences of numbers.”
“Sequence of numbers,” Tom murmured, trying to assimilate the words as they came. But words were not quickly assimilated any more; they seemed to lie upon the tissues of his brain like insects on a sluggish carnivore. He said the words in his mind again — sequence of . . . sequence of numbers — there he had it. He looked at his son and waited.
“Well?” he said, impatiently, after a moment’s silence.
“Dad, I’ve already given you the first one,” Les told him.
“Well . . . His father grasped for the proper words. “Kindly give me the — the . . . do me the kindness of . . .”
Les exhaled wearily. “Eight-five-eleven-six,” he said.
The old lips stirred, the old machinery of Tom’s mind began turning slowly.
“Eight . . . f—ive . . .” The pale eyes blinked slowly. “Elevensix,” Tom finished in a breath, then straightened himself proudly.
Yes, good, he thought — very good. They wouldn’t fool him tomorrow; he’d beat their murderous law. His lips pressed together and his hands clasped tightly on the white table cloth.
“What?” he said then, refocusing his eyes as Les said something. “Speak up,” he said, irritably. “Speak up.”
“I gave you another sequence,” Les said quietly. “Here, I’ll read it again.”
Tom leaned forward a little, ears straining. “Nine-two-sixteen-seven-three,” Les said.
Tom cleared his throat with effort. “Speak slower,” he told his son. He hadn’t quite gotten that. How did they expect anyone to retain such a ridiculously long string of numbers?
“What, what?” he asked angrily as Les read the numbers again.
“Dad, the examiner will be reading the questions faster than I'm reading them. You —”
“I’m quite aware of that,” Tom interrupted stiffly, “Quite aware. Let me remind you . . . however, this is . . . not a test. It’s study, it’s for study. Foolish to go rushing through everything. Foolish. I have to learn this — this . . . this test” he finished, angry at his son and angry at the way desired words hid themselves from his mind.
Les shrugged and looked down at the test again. “Nine-two-sixteen- seven-three,” he read slowly.
"I said that.”
“You said six, Dad.”
“Don’t you suppose I know what I said!”
Les closed his eyes a moment. “All right, Dad,” he said.
“Well, are you going to read it again or not?” Tom asked him sharply.
Les read the numbers off again and, as he listened to his father stumble through the sequence, he glanced into the living room at Terry.
She was sitting there, features motionless, sewing. She’d turned off the radio and he knew she could hear the old man faltering with the numbers.
All right, Les heard himself saying in his mind as if he spoke to her. All right, I know he’s old and useless. Do you want me to tell him that to his face and drive a knife into his back? You know and I know that he won’t pass the test. Allow me, at least, this brief hypocrisy. Tomorrow the sentence will be passed. Don’t make me pass it tonight and break the old man’s heart.
“That’s correct, I believe,” Les heard the dignified voice of his father say and he refocused his eyes on the gaunt, seamed face.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said, hastily.
He felt like a traitor when a slight smile trembled at the corners of his father’s mouth. I’m cheating him, he thought.
“Let’s go on to something else,” he heard his father say and he looked down quickly at the sheet. What would be easy for him? he thought, despising himself for thinking it.
“Well, come on, Leslie,” his father said in a restrained voice. “We have no time to waste.”
Tom looked at his son thumbing through the pages and his hands closed into fists. Tomorrow, his life was in the balance and his son just browsed through the test paper as if nothing important were going to happen tomorrow.
“Come on, come on,” he said peevishly.
Les picked up a pencil that had string attached to it and drew a half-inch circle on a piece of blank paper. He held out the pencil to his father.
“Suspend the pencil point over the circle for three minutes,” he said, suddenly afraid he’d picked the wrong question. He’d seen his father’s hands trembling at meal times or fumbling with the buttons and zippers of his clothes.
Swallowing nervously, Les picked up the stop watch, started it, and nodded to his father.
Tom took a quivering breath as he leaned over the paper and tried to hold the slightly swaying pencil above the circle. Les saw him lean on his elbow, something he wouldn’t be allowed to do on the test; but he said nothing.
He sat there looking at his father. Whatever color there had been was leaving the old man’s face and Les could see clearly the tiny red lines of broken vessels under the skin of his cheeks. He looked at the dry skin, creased and brownish, dappled with liver spots. Eighty years old, he thought — what does a man feel when he’s 80 years old?
He looked in at Terry again. For a moment, her gaze shifted and they were looking at each other, neither of them smiling or making any sign. Then Terry looked back to her sewing.
“I believe that’s three minutes,” Tom said in a taut voice.
Les looked down at the stop watch. “A minute and a half, Dad,” he said, wondering if he should have lied again.
“Well, keep your eyes on the watch then,” his father said, perturbedly, the pencil penduluming completely out of the circle. “This is supposed to be a test, not a — a — a party.”
Les kept his eyes on the wavering pencil point, feeling a sense of utter futility at the realization that this was only pretense, that nothing they did could save his father’s life.
At least, he thought, the examinations weren’t given by the sons and daughters who had voted the law into being. At least he wouldn’t have to stamp the black inadequate on his father’s test and thus pronounce the sentence.
The pencil wavered over the circle edge again and was returned as Tom moved his arm slightly on the table, a motion that would automatically disqualify him on that question.
“That watch is slow!” Tom said in a sudden fury.
Les caught his breath and looked down at the watch. Two and a half minutes. “Three minutes,” he said, pushing in the plunger.
Tom slapped down the pencil irritably. “There,” lie said. “Fool test anyway.” His voice grew morose. “Don’t prove a thing. Not a thing.”
“You want to do some money questions, Dad?”
“Are they the next questions in the test?” Tom asked, looking over suspiciously to check for himself.
“Yes,” Les lied, knowing that his father’s eyes were too weak to see even though Tom always refused to admit he needed glasses. “Oh, wait a second, there’s one before that,” he added, thinking it would be easier for his father. “They ask you to tell time.”
“That’s a foolish question,” Tom muttered. “What do they—”
He reached across the table irritably and picked up the watch and glanced down at its face. “Ten fifteen,” he said, scornfully.
Before Les could think to stop himself, he said, “But it’s 11:15, Dad.”
His father looked, for a moment, as though his face had been slapped. Then he picked up the watch again and stared down at it, lips twitching, and Les had the horrible premonition that Tom was going to insist it really was 10:15.
“Well, that’s what I meant,” Tom said abruptly. “Slipped out wrong. Course it’s 11:15, any fool can see that. Eleven fifteen. Watch is no good. Numbers too close. Ought to throw it away. Now —”
Tom reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his own gold watch. “Here’s a watch” he said, proudly. “Been telling perfect time for . . . sixty years! That’s a watch. Not like this.”
He tossed Les’s watch down contemptuously and it flipped over on its face and the crystal broke.
“Look at that,” Tom said quickly, to cover the jolting of embarrassment. “Watch can’t take anything.”
He avoided Les’s eyes by looking down at his own watch. His mouth tightened as he opened the back and looked at Mary’s picture; Mary when she was in her thirties, golden-haired and lovely.
Thank God, she didn’t have to take these tests, he thought — at least she was spared that. Tom had never thought he could believe that Mary’s accidental death at 57 was fortunate, but that was before the tests.
He closed the watch and put it away.
“You just leave that watch with me, tonight,” he said grumpily. “I’ll see you get a decent ... uh, crystal tomorrow.”
“That’s all right, Dad. It’s just an old watch.”
“That’s all right,” Tom said. “That’s all right. You just leave it with me. I’ll get you a decent . . . crystal. Get you one that won’t break, one that won’t break. You just leave it with me.”
Tom did the money questions then, questions like How many quarters in a five dollar bill? and If I took 36 cents from your dollar, how much change would you have left?
They were written questions and Les sat there timing his father. It was quiet in the house, warm. Everything seemed very normal and ordinary with the two of them sitting there and Terry sewing in the living room.
That was the horror.
Life went on as usual. No one spoke of dying. The government sent out letters, and the tests were given and those who failed were requested to appear at the government center for their injections. The law operated, the death rate was steady, the population problem was contained — all officially, impersonally, without a cry or a sensation.
But it was still loved people who were being killed.
“Never mind hanging over that watch,” his father said. “I can do these questions without you . . . hanging over that watch.”
“Dad, the examiners will be looking at their watches.”
“The examiners are the examiners,” Tom snapped. “You’re not an examiner.”
“Dad, I’m trying to help y —”
“Well, help me then, help me. Don’t sit there hanging over that watch.”
“This is your test, Dad, not mine,” Les started, a flush of anger creeping up his cheeks. “If—”
“My test, yes, my test!” his father suddenly raged. “You all saw to that, didn’t you? All saw to it that — that —”
Words failed again, angry thoughts piling up in his brain.
“You don’t have to yell, Dad.”
“I’m not yelling!”
“Dad, the boys are sleeping!” Terry suddenly broke in.
“I don’t care if—!” Tom broke off suddenly and leaned back in the chair, the pencil falling unnoticed from his fingers and rolling across the table cloth. He sat shivering, his thin chest rising and falling in jerks, his hands twitching uncontrollably on his lap.
“Do you want to go on, Dad?” Les asked, restraining his nervous anger. “I don’t ask much,” Tom mumbled to himself. “Don’t ask much in life.” “Dad, shall we go on?”
His father stiffened. “If you can spare the time,” he said with slow, indignant pride. “If you can spare the time.”
Les looked at the test paper, his fingers gripping the stapled sheets rigidly. Psychological questions? No, he couldn’t ask them. How did you ask your 8o-year-old father his views on sex? — your Hint-surfaced father to whom the most innocuous remark was “obscene.”
“Well?” his father asked in a rising voice.
“There doesn’t seem to be anymore,” Les said. “We’ve been at it almost four hours now.”
“What about all those pages you just skipped?”
“Most of those are for the . . . the physical, Dad.”
He saw his father’s lips press together and was afraid Tom was going to say something about that again. But all his father said was, “A fine friend. Fine friend.”
“Dad, you —”
Les’s voice broke off. There was no point in talking about it anymore. Tom knew perfectly well that Doctor Trask couldn’t make out a bill of health for this test the way he’d done for the three tests previous.
Les knew how frightened and insulted the old man was because he’d have to take off his clothes and be exposed to doctors who would probe and tap and ask offensive questions. He knew how afraid Tom was of the fact that when he re-dressed, he’d be watched from a peephole and someone would mark on a chart how well he dressed himself. He knew how it frightened his father to know that, when he ate in the government cafeteria at the midpoint of the day-long examination, eyes would be watching him again to see if he dropped a fork or a spoon or knocked over a glass of water or dribbled gravy on his shirt.
“They’ll ask you to sign your name and address,” Les said, wanting his father to forget about the physical and knowing how proud Tom was of his handwriting.
Pretending that he grudged it, the old man picked up the pencil and wrote. I’ll fool them, he thought as the pencil moved across the page with strong, sure motions.
Mr. Thomas Parser, he wrote, 2779 Brighton Street, Blairtown, New York.
“And the date,” Les said.
The old man wrote, January 17, 2003, and something cold moved in the old man’s vitals.
Tomorrow was the test.
They lay beside each other, neither of them sleeping. They had barely spoken while undressing and when Les had leaned over to kiss her goodnight she’d murmured something he didn’t hear.
Now he turned over on his side with a heavy sigh and faced her. In the darkness, she opened her eyes and looked over at him.
“Asleep?” she asked softly.
He said no more. He waited for her to start.
But she didn’t start and, after a few moments, he said, “Well, I guess this is . . . it.” He finished weakly because he didn’t like the words; they sounded ridiculously melodramatic.
Terry didn’t say anything right away. Then, as if thinking aloud, she said, “Do you think there’s any chance that —”
Les tightened at the words because he knew what she was going to say.
“No,” he said. “He’ll never pass.”
He heard Terry swallowing. Don’t say it, he thought, pleadingly. Don’t tell me I’ve been saying the same thing for fifteen years. I know it. I said it because I thought it was true.
Suddenly, he wished he’d signed the Request For Removal years before. They needed desperately to be free of Tom; for the good of their children and themselves. But how did you put that need into words without feeling like a murderer? You couldn’t say: I hope the old man fails, I hope they kill him. Yet anything else you said was only a hypocritical substitute for those words because that was exactly how you felt.
Medical terms, he thought — charts about declining crops and lowered standard of living and hunger ratio and degrading health level — they’d used all those as arguments to support passage of the law. Well, they were lies — obvious, groundless lies. The law had been passed because people wanted to be left alone, because they wanted to live their own lives.
“Les, what if he passes?” Terry said.
He felt his hands tightening on the mattress.
“I don’t know, honey,” he said.
Her voice was firm in the darkness. It was a voice at the end of patience. “You have to know,” it said.
He moved his head restlessly on the pillow. “Honey, don’t push it,” he begged. “Please.”
“Les, if he passes that test it means five more years. Five more years, Les. Have you thought what that means?”
“Honey, he can’t pass that test."
“But, what if he does?”
“Terry, he missed three-quarters of the questions I asked him tonight. His hearing is almost gone, his eyes are bad, his heart is weak, he has arthritis.” His fist beat down hopelessly on the bed. “He won’t even pass the physical," he said, feeling himself tighten in self-hatred for assuring her that Tom was doomed.
If only he could forget the past and take his father for what he was now — a helpless, mid-jading old man who was ruining their lives. But it was hard to forget how he’d loved and respected his father, hard to forget the hikes in the country, the fishing trips, the long talks at night and all the many things his father and he had shared together.
That was why he’d never had the strength to sign the request. It was a simple form to fill out, much simpler than waiting for the five-year tests. But it had meant signing away the life of his father, requesting the government to dispose of him like some unwanted garbage. He could never do that.
And yet, now his father was 80 and, in spite of moral upbringing, in spite of life-taught Christian principles, he and Terry were horribly afraid that old Tom might pass the test and live another five years with them — another five years of fumbling around the house, undoing instructions they gave to the boys, breaking things, wanting to help but only getting in the way and making life an agony of held-in nerves.
“You’d better sleep,” Terry said to him.
He tried to but he couldn’t. He lay staring at the dark ceiling and trying to find an answer but finding no answer.
The alarm went off at 6. Les didn’t have to get up until 8 but he wanted to see his father off. He got out of bed and dressed quietly so he wouldn’t wake up Terry.
She woke up anyway and looked up at him from her pillow. After a moment, she pushed up on one elbow and looked sleepily at him.
“I’ll get up and make you some breakfast,” she said.
“That’s all right,” Les said. “You stay in bed.”
“Don’t you want me to get up?”
“Don’t bother, honey,” he said. “I want you to rest.”
She lay down again and turned away so Les wouldn’t see her face. She didn’t know why she began to cry soundlessly; whether it was because he didn’t want her to see his father or because of the test. But she couldn’t stop. All she could do was hold herself rigid until the bedroom door had closed.
Then her shoulders trembled and a sob broke the barrier she had built in herself.
The door to his father’s room was open as Les passed. He looked in and saw Tom sitting on the bed, leaning down and fastening his dark shoes. He saw the gnarled fingers shaking as they moved over the straps.
“Everything all right, Dad?” Les asked.
His father looked up in surprise. “What are you doing up this hour?” he asked.
“Thought I’d have breakfast with you,” Les told him.
For a moment they looked at each other in silence. Then his father leaned over the shoes again. “That’s not necessary,” he heard the old man’s voice telling him.
“Well, I think I’ll have some breakfast anyway,” he said and turned away so his father couldn’t argue.
“Oh . . . Leslie."
“I trust you didn’t forget to leave that watch out,” his father said. “I intend to take it to the jeweler’s today and have a decent . . . decent crystal put on it, one that won’t break.”
“Dad, it’s just an old watch,” Les said. “It’s not worth a nickel.”
His father nodded slowly, one palm wavering before him as if to ward off argument. “Never-the-less,” he stated slowly, “I intend to—”
“All right, Dad, all right. I’ll put it on the kitchen table.”
His father broke off and looked at him blankly a moment. Then, as if it were impulse and not delayed will, he bent over his shoes again.
Les stood for a moment looking down at his father’s gray hair, his gaunt, trembling fingers. Then he turned away.
The watch was still on the dining room table. Les picked it up and took it in to the kitchen table. The old man must have been reminding himself about the watch all night, he thought. Otherwise he wouldn’t have managed to remember it.
He put fresh water in the coffee globe and pushed the buttons for two servings of bacon and eggs. Then he poured two glasses of orange j nice and sat down at the table.
About fifteen minutes later, his father came down wearing his dark blue suit, his shoes carefully polished, his nails manicured, his hair slicked down and combed and brushed. He looked very neat and very old as he walked over to the coffee globe and looked in.
“Sit down, Dad,” Les said. “I’ll get it for you.”
“I’m not helpless,” his father said. “Stay where you are.”
Les managed a smile. “I put some bacon and eggs on for us,” he said.
“Not hungry,” his father replied.
“You’ll need a good breakfast in you, Dad.”
“Never did eat a big breakfast," his father said, stiffly, still facing the stove. “Don’t believe in it. Not good for the stomach.”
Les closed his eyes a moment and across his face moved an expression of hopeless despair. Why did I bother getting up? he asked himself defeatedly. All we do is argue.
No. He felt himself stiffening. No, he’d be cheerful if it killed him.
“Sleep all right, Dad?” he asked.
“Course I slept all right,” his father answered. “Always sleep fine. Fine. Did you think I wouldn’t because of a —”
He broke off suddenly and turned accusingly at Les. “Where’s that watch?” he demanded.
Les exhaled wearily and held up the watch. His father moved jerkily across the linoleum, took it from him and looked at it a moment, his old lips pursed.
“Shoddy workmanship,” he said. “Shoddy.” He put it carefully in his side coat pocket. “Get you a decent crystal,” he muttered. “One that won’t break.”
Les nodded. “That’ll be swell, Dad.”
The coffee was ready then and Tom poured them each a cup. Les got up and turned oft the automatic griller. He didn’t feel like having bacon and eggs either now.
He sat across the table from his stern-faced father and felt hot coffee trickling down his throat. It tasted terrible but he knew that nothing in the world would have tasted good to him that morning.
“What time do you have to be there, Dad?” he asked to break the silence.
“Nine o’clock,” Tom said.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to drive you there?”
“Not at all, not at all,” his father said as though he were talking patiently to an irritably insistent child. “The tube is good enough. Get me there in plenty of time.”
“All right, Dad,” Les said and sat there staring into his coffee. There must be something he could say, he thought, but he couldn’t think of anything. Silence hung over them for long minutes while Tom drank his black coffee in slow, methodical sips.
Les licked his lips nervously, then hid the trembling of them behind his cup. Talking, he thought, talking and talking — of cars and tube conveyers and examination schedules — when all the time both of them knew that Tom might be sentenced to death that day.
He was sorry he’d gotten up. It would have been better to wake up and just find his father gone. He wished it could happen that way—permanently. He wished he could wake up some morning and find his father’s room empty — the two suits gone, the dark shoes gone, the work clothes gone, the handkerchiefs, the socks, the garters, the braces, the shaving equipment — all those mute evidences of a life gone.
But it wouldn’t be like that. After Tom failed the test, it would be several weeks before the letter of final appointment came and then another week or so before the appointment itself. It would be a hideously slow process of packing and disposing of and giving away of possessions, a process of meals and meals and meals together, of talking to each other, of a last dinner, of a long drive to the government center, of a ride up in a silent, humming elevator, of —
He found himself shivering helplessly and was afraid for a moment that he was going to cry.
Then he looked up with a shocked expression as his father stood.
“I’ll be going now,” Tom said.
Les’s eyes fled to the wall clock. “But it’s only a quarter to 7,” he said, tensely. “It doesn’t take that long to —”
“Like to be in plenty of time,” his father said firmly. “Never like to be late.”
“But my God, Dad, it only takes an hour at the most to get to the city,” he said, feeling a terrible sinking in his stomach.
His father shook his head and Les knew he hadn’t heard. “It’s early, Dad,” he said, loudly, his voice shaking a little.
“Never-the-less,” his father said.
“But you haven’t eaten anything.”
“Never did eat a big breakfast,” Tom started. “Not good for the —”
Les didn’t hear the rest of it — the words about lifetime habit and not good for the digestion and everything else his father said. He felt waves of merciless horror breaking over him and he wanted to jump and throw his arms around the old man and tell him not to worry about the test because it didn’t matter, because they loved him and would take care of him.
But he couldn’t. He sat rigid with sick fright, looking up at his father. He couldn’t even speak when his father turned at the kitchen door and said in a voice that was calmly dispassionate because it took every bit of strength the old man had to make it so, “I’ll see you tonight, Leslie.”
The door swung shut and the breeze that ruffled across Les’s cheeks chilled him to the heart.
Suddenly, he jumped up with a startled grunt and rushed across the linoleum. As he pushed through the doorway he saw his father almost to the front door,
Tom stopped and looked back in surprise as Les walked across the dining room, hearing the steps counted in his mind — one, two, three, four, five.
He stopped before his father and forced a faltering smile to his lips.
“Good luck, Dad,” he said. “I’ll ... see you tonight.” He had been about to say, “I’ll be rooting for you”; but he couldn’t.
His father nodded once, just once, a curt nod as of one gentleman acknowledging another.
“Thank you,” his father said and turned away.
When the door shut, it seemed as if, suddenly, it had become an impenetrable wall through which his father could never pass again.
Les moved to the window and watched the old man walk slowly down the path and turn left onto the sidewalk. He watched his father start up the street, then straighten himself, throw back his lean shoulders and walk erect and briskly into the gray of morning.
At first Les thought it was raining. But then he saw that the shimmering moistness wasn’t on the window at all.
He couldn’t go to work. He phoned In sick and stayed home. Terry got the boys off to school and, after they’d eaten breakfast, Les helped her clear away the morning dishes and put them in the washer. Terry didn’t say anything about his staying home. She acted as if it were normal for him to be home on a weekday.
He spent the morning and afternoon puttering in the garage shop, starting seven different projects and losing interest in them.
Around 5, he went into the kitchen and had a can of beer while Terry made supper. He didn’t say anything to her. He kept pacing around the living room, staring out the window at the overcast sky, then pacing again.
“I wonder where he is,” he finally said, back in the kitchen again.
“He’ll be back,” she said and he stiffened a moment, thinking he heard disgust in her voice. Then he relaxed, knowing it was only his imagination.
When he dressed after taking a shower, it was five forty. The boys were home from playing and they all sat down to supper. Les noticed a place set for his father and wondered if Terry had set it there for his benefit.
He couldn’t eat anything. He kept cutting the meat into smaller and smaller pieces and mashing butter into his baked potato without tasting any of it.
“What is it?” he asked as Jim spoke to him.
“Dad, if grandpa don’t pass the test, he gets a month, don’t he?”
Les felt his stomach muscles tightening as he stared at his older son. gets a month, don't he? — the last of Jim’s question muttered on in his brain.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“My Civics book says old people get a month to live after they don’t pass their test. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“No, it isn't,” Tommy broke in. “Harry Senker’s grandma got her letter after only two weeks.”
“How do you know?” Jim asked his nine-year-old brother. “Did you see it?” >
“That’s enough,” Les said.
“Don’t have t’see it!” Tommy argued, “Harry told me that —”
The two boys looked suddenly at their white-faced father.
“We won’t talk about it,” he said.
“But what —”
“Jimmy," Terry said, warningly.
Jimmy looked at his mother, then, after a moment, went back to his food and they all ate in silence.
The death of their grandfather means nothing to them, Les thought bitterly — nothing at all. He swallowed and tried to relax the tightness in his body. Well, why should it mean anything to them? he told himself; it’s not their time to worry yet. Why force it on them now? They’ll have it soon enough.
When the front door opened and shut at 6:10, Les stood up so quickly, he knocked over an empty glass.
“Les, don't,” Terry said suddenly and he knew, immediately, that she was right. His father wouldn’t like him to come rushing from the kitchen with questions.
He slumped down on the chair again and stared at his barely touched food, his heart throbbing. As he picked up his fork with tight fingers, he heard the old man cross the dining room rug and start up the stairs. He glanced at Terry and her throat moved.
He couldn’t eat. He sat there breathing heavily, and picking at the food. Upstairs, he heard the door to his father’s room close.
It was when Terry was putting the pie on the table that Les excused himself quickly and got up.
He was at the foot of the stairs when the kitchen door was pushed open, “Les,” he heard her say, urgently.
He stood there silently as she came up to him.
“Isn’t it better we leave him alone?” she asked.
“But, honey, I —”
“Les, if he’d passed the test, he would have come into the kitchen and told us.”
‘‘Honey, he wouldn’t know if —”
“He’d know if he passed, you know that. He told us about it the last two times. If he’d passed, he’d have —”
Her voice broke off and she shuddered at the way he was looking at her. In the heavy silence, she heard a sudden splattering of rain on the windows.
They looked at each other a long moment. Then Les said, “I’m going up.” “Les,” she murmured.
“I won’t say anything to upset him,” he said, “I’ll . .
A moment longer they stared at each other. Then he turned away and trudged up the steps. Terry watched him go with a bleak, hopeless look on her face.
Les stood before the closed door a minute, bracing himself. I won’t upset him, he told himself; I won't.
He knocked softly, wondering, in that second, if he were making a mistake. Maybe he should have left the old man alone, he thought unhappily.
In the bedroom, he heard a rustling movement on the bed, then the sound of his father’s feet touching the floor.
“Who is it?” he heard Tom ask.
Les caught his breath. “It’s me, Dad,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“May I see you?”
Silence inside. “Well . . .’’he heard his father say then and his voice stopped. Les heard him get up and heard the sound of his footsteps on the floor. Then there was the sound of paper rattling and a bureau drawer being carefully shut.
Finally the door opened.
Tom was wearing his old red bathrobe over his clothes and he’d taken off his shoes and put his slippers on.
“May I come in, Dad?” Les asked quietly.
His father hesitated a moment. Then he said, “Come in,” but it wasn’t an invitation. It was more as if he’d said, This is your house; I can’t keep you from this room.
Les was going to tell his father that he didn’t want to disturb him but he couldn’t. I Ie went in and stood in the middle of the throw rug, waiting.
“Sit down,” his father said and Les sat down on the upright chair that Tom hung his clothes on at night. His father waited until Les was seated and then sank down on the bed with a grunt.
For a long time they looked at each other without speaking like total strangers each waiting for the other one to speak. How did the test go? Les heard the words repeated in his mind. How did the test go, how did the test go? He couldn’t speak the words. How did the —
“I suppose you want to know what . . . happened,” his father said then, controlling himself visibly.
“Yes,” Les said, “I . . ." He caught himself. “Yes,” he repeated and waited.
Old Tom looked down at the floor for a moment. Then, suddenly, he raised his head and looked defiantly at his son.
“I didn't go,” he said.
Les felt as if all his strength had suddenly been sucked into the floor. He sat there, motionless, staring at his father.
“Had no intention of going,” his father hurried on. “No intention of going through all that foolishness. Physical tests, m-mental tests, putting b-b-blocks in a board and . . . Lord knows what all! Had no intention of going.”
He stopped and stared at his son with angry eyes as if he were daring Les to say he had done wrong.
But Les couldn’t say anything.
A long time passed. Les swallowed and managed to summon the words. “What are you . . . going to do?”
“Never mind that, never mind,” his father said, almost as if he were grateful for the question. “Don’t you worry about your Dad. Your Dad knows how to take care of himself.
And suddenly Les heard the bureau drawer shutting again, the rustling of a paper bag. He almost looked around at the bureau to see if the bag were still there. His head twitched as he fought down the impulse.
“W-ell,” he faltered, not realizing how stricken and lost his expression was.
“Just never mind now,” his father said again, quietly, almost gently.
“It’s not your problem to worry about. Not your problem at all.”
But it is! Les heard the words cried out in his mind. But he didn’t speak them. Something in the old man stopped him; a sort of fierce strength, a taut dignity he knew he mustn’t touch.
“I’d like to rest now,” he heard Tom say then and he felt as if he’d been struck violently in the stomach. I’d like to rest now, to rest now — the words echoed down long tunnels of the mind as he stood. Rest now, rest now . . .
He found himself being ushered to the door where he turned and looked at his father. Goodbye. The word stuck in him.
Then his father smiled and said, “Good night, Leslie.”
He felt the old man's hand in his own, stronger than his, more steady; calming him, reassuring him. He felt his father’s left hand grip his shoulder.“Good night, son,” his father said and, in the moment they stood close together, Les saw, over the old man’s shoulder, the crumpled drugstore bag lying in the corner of the room as though it had been thrown there so as not to be seen.
Then he was standing in wordless terror in the hall, listening to the latch clicking shut and knowing that, although his father wasn’t locking the door, he couldn’t go into his father’s room.
For a long time he stood staring at the closed door, shivering without control. Then he turned away.
Terry was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, her face drained of color. She asked the question with her eyes as he came down to her.
“He . . . didn’t go,” was all he said.
She made a tiny, startled sound in her throat. “But —”
“He’s been to the drugstore,” Les said. “I . . . saw the bag in the corner of the room. He threw it away so I wouldn’t see it but I . . . saw it.”
For a moment, it seemed as if she were starting for the stairs but it was only a momentary straining of her body.
“He must have shown the druggist the letter about the test,” Les said. “The . . . druggist must have given him . . . pills. Like they all do.”
They stood silently in the dining room while rain drummed against the windows.
“What shall we do?” she asked, almost inaudibly.
“Nothing,” he murmured. His throat moved convulsively and breath shuddered through him. “Nothing.”
Then he was walking numbly back to the kitchen and he could feel her arm tight around him as if she were trying to press her love to him because she could not speak of love.
All evening, they sat there in the kitchen. After she put the boys to bed, she came back and they sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking in quiet, lonely voices.
Near midnight, they left the kitchen and, just before they went upstairs, Les stopped by the dining room table and found the watch with a shiny new crystal on it. He couldn’t even touch it.
They went upstairs and walked past the door of Tom’s bedroom. There was no sound inside. They got undressed and got in bed together and Terry set the clock the way she set it every night. In a few hours they both managed to fall asleep.
And all night there was silence in the old man’s room. And the next day, silence.
Thank you, dear Reader, for putting your eyes on “The Flying Fish”. As the great calamities and devastations of our time continue fast in an unforeseeable direction, our struggle is extensive. As Paul says (Eph 6:12), “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.”
I kiss you on the mouth.
June 21 AD 2023
Richard Matheson, born on February 20, 1926, was a celebrated architect of speculative fiction, carving out a niche in the literary world through his nuanced exploration of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. His seminal works, such as I Am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man, have provoked deep societal introspection, demonstrating Matheson’s deft ability to marry existential quandaries with extraordinary circumstances. This luminary, who passed away in 2013, further extended his narrative acumen to The Twilight Zone, illustrating his remarkable talent for creating uncanny yet profoundly human scenarios that resonate across time.