The battle to feed humanity is
over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of
people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon
I counted out sixty-three red food coupons and lay them in the old man's trembling left hand. His right hand held a revolver against my groin. He watched me closely, as though I were counting out diamonds.
"That's sixty-three, Mr. Prescott. One per pound."
The old man continued to stare at me, and I guessed what he was thinking. He wondered how a man could stomach a job like mine. Then, lowering his pistol, he stuffed the coupons into his shirt pocket and jogged off toward the Government Food Center in town.
About a dozen children, ages three to fourteen, spilled out onto the front porch and watched Mr. Prescott disappear down the road.
Mrs. Prescott, her face twisted into a smile, held up her hands and said slowly, with false confidence, "Now, children, grandpa will be back before you know it." She stared down the road. "Don't worry. He wouldn't leave us."
"Mrs. Prescott? I have several other appointments, so if you'd just point out..."
She turned away. "Windy?" She yelled into the house, "WINDY! Come out here!"
A girl limped slowly, crookedly through the gang of children. She looked about twelve, but you could never be sure. There was a nickel-plated brace on her left leg. "I'm coming, gra-ma, I'm coming."
As she passed, the other children moved away. "They ain't all ours," said Mrs. Prescott in defense. "They just wandered in, like stray cats..." Windy stopped a few feet away and stared at her feet. "Windy's our own. My...my son's child." Mrs. Prescott stroked Windy's long blond hair. "He and his wife were...were..." She couldn't say it. I nodded to show her she didn't have to.
"Windy, I'm Mr. Johnson. I've come to take you to a new home."
She looked up and grinned, revealing a two-tooth gap. "My daddy said he'd take me to Disneyland!"
With my hand on her fragile shoulder, I guided her to my car. Before we got in, I had her stand on my portable scales. "Sixty-three pounds."
"Goodbye, gra-ma! Goodbye, every-body!"
Mrs. Prescott sobbed behind her hands, waved once sharply, then retreated into the house.
The children just stared as we drove away.
In the car, I noted that Windy had huge blue eyes and golden pigtails. Her pigtails had been tied with red silk ribbons. She reminded me of my own daughter, Angie.
"Where are we going? I mean, for real?"
"I told you...uh...Windy. We're going to a new home."
She frowned. "Couldn't we go to Disneyland? Huh? Please? My daddy said he was gonna take me, but he died. Can we?"
I scanned the roadside, looking for scavengers. "Sure, Windy. Sure, why not? We'll go to Disneyland if it'll make you happy."
Windy screamed and screamed and bounced up and down on the seat. She slid across the seat, wrapped her skinny arms around my neck and gave me sloppy kiss on the cheek. "Will you be my daddy at Disneyland?"
"Okay. Sure. Now sit back and be quiet." The harshness of my voice startled me.
A mile later, she whispered. "How far is Disneyland, Mr. John, sir?"
"Not far. We'll be there in a few minutes."
"Can we play games when we get there?" She turned away and stared out her window. "The kids at gra-ma's wouldn't play with me. They said I was a crip. They said I was stupid." She grinned and tossed all those memories behind her with a facility only children possess. "Will we be there soon?"
"SHUT UP!" The car swerved as I lost control. I fought my temper and held the car on the pavement.
Without a word, she huddled against the door and wilted, as though she was suddenly cold. She cried without making a sound.
The faces of my own six children screamed at me, begging me. My wife was on her knees. But I couldn't help myself. I just couldn't take any more. A year on the job was supposed to make a man hard, but then my charges usually weren't old enough to ask questions, or were too far gone.
I drove off the road, made a quick U-turn, and headed back in the opposite direction.
After a few fast miles, I remembered there was nowhere to go. It was a capital crime to take her home, especially for a government official. They'd probably even execute my family. And there was nowhere she could hide, no way she could keep alive for long.
A tire iron slammed across the windshield on Windy's side. Fragments of glass hit me in the face with sharp little stabs of pain.
The car skidded wildly, but I was able to stop without cracking it up. Someone opened the door and reached in for Windy. She screamed. I fumbled for the forty-give automatic in the glove compartment. A man was dragging Windy from the car. I shot him in the face. Hands clawed my window, fists pounded the glass. From habit, I'd locked the door. Windy, whimpering, grabbed her door with both hands and jerked it shut. I fell back in the seat and emptied the clip through my window. Forms scattered. I forced the car back onto the highway and fishtailed back in the direction we'd come.
The scavengers were fighting with stick, pieces of iron and rock. Like a pack of wild dogs, they had run together until there was nothing left to hunt, and then turned upon one another.
"Are you still mad at me?"
I was breathing hard and fast, wiping blood from my eyes. "No. I'm not mad."
"I thought you was mad when you turned the car around. I thought you wasn't gonna take me to Disneyland, to punish me."
"Don't worry about it, okay? We're going to Disneyland, after all." It was probably the best thing, I decided, remembering the slobbering faces outside the window.
"Johnson, purchasing agent." I flashed my I.D. card.
The Master Sergeant at the gate held his greasegun ready while he compared my I.D. picture and my face. A sandbagged machinegun emplacement, manned by Marines, stood ready to deal with any scavengers foolish enough, or desperate enough, to crash through the electrified cyclone fence around the cannery.
"Had a little trouble," I see." The sergeant handed back my I.D. card. "Okay, Johnson. Take it slow."
Brutner was yelling at his crew on the receiving ramp: "GET THE HELL BACK TO WORK! THIS AIN'T NO REST HOME!" Brutner was a huge, barrel-chested man, naked to the waist, and hairy. Everybody agreed that he was the best slaughter bruiser at the meat company.
"Disneyland! DISNEYLAND!" Windy didn't even know where she was anymore. She saw hotdog stands and cotton candy and Ferris wheels and purple balloons. Their minds go first, it seems.
"Yes, Windy. This is Disneyland."
"But where's Donald Duck?"
"Oh, he's inside..."
"Johnson! YOU'RE LATE!" Brutner took a big bite from his sandwich and washed it down with a long swallow of beer. "Get moving, mister. The boss says if you miss your quota one more day, you're fired...and you know what that would mean...Anyway, I got men beggin' for your job."
I wanted to kill him, of course, but I wouldn't. I'd often wanted to kill myself, but I wouldn't do that either. "Okay, Brutner. I'm going."
"Goodbye, Mr. John!" Windy waved and grinned and Brutner led her away.
I hurried back to my car.
The big double doors of the cannery were wide open, as usual. Long ago, the stench would have made me throw up. Even after a year, I avoided looking at the meat racks. I already knew what was there. I'd already seen the small carcasses, split up the belly and decapitated, hung upside down on steel meat hooks to drain...
"Goodbye, Mr. John!" echoed Windy's happy words into some dead days in my memory.
"Goodbye, Mr. John." I replied.
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