The Marrying Man by Farrell, Joseph



_Pete never heard of that old adage about "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander"...._

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Worlds of If Science Fiction, August 1958. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

It wasn't that Pete Cooper didn't love his wives, or that he wanted to see them hurry on into the next world. He always felt real grief when he found himself a widower.

But a man must be practical. They were all healthy young women, or at least middle aged when he married them, good insurance risks, and no insurance agent was turning down the business when Pete asked for a policy that big, especially when Pete was putting the cash on the line to pay up the policy when he bought it.

That was the most sensible way for a man in the interstellar service to invest his money, Pete said. When he was out in space traveling at near light speed, and time slowed almost to a stop for him, the few months he spent on an expedition meant that nine years passed for a wife on Earth for a Centauri trip, and Sirius meant fifteen, and Altair twenty-five. So a man only saw his wife two or three times between trips, and maybe the last time he saw her he had to take her to the old ladies' home, and the next time he pulled into Earth the insurance company was waiting for him with a check. Safer than stocks, and there was always the possibility that the loving wife might come to an accidental end, which would sadden him, but it meant a double indemnity payment. That sort of satisfied a man's natural desire to have a little speculation attached to his investment.

Sally was the seventh. Pete sat fingering the check, feeling genuine sadness at his bereavement.

"Lovely girl," he told the insurance agent. "It makes a man feel empty to come home from the stars and find that his wife has gone to her reward."

The insurance man disguised a cynical smirk behind his sympathetic mask. "Yes ... a wonderful woman. But it must happen to all of us."

He patted Pete's shoulder gently. Pete rose, folded the check carelessly and put it into a pocket. He shook the insurance agent's hand.

"You've been very kind. I'll take your card ... in case I ever need another policy...."

* * * * *

Pete expected to need another policy before he left for his next trip. He felt unhappy about Sally's being gone, but a man mustn't give in to morbid self pity. And hadn't he heard somebody say that a man without a wife was like a spaceship without a motor?

He strolled about the city, unimpressed by the changes since his last visit. An interstellar man with as much service as Pete was beyond showing surprise at superficial differences. He was a little annoyed to find that the moving sidewalks were old-fashioned and had been torn out. People now wore little repulsor units on their belts.

Walking was tiresome. He stopped at a corner and watched the pedestrians as they whizzed by a few inches off the ground. At least they were clothed; the nudity of the previous century had been somewhat unnerving even to the blasé eyes of a time man. And he was glad to see that the women were back to wearing long, well groomed hair. That period when fashion had called for smoothly shaven heads hadn't suited his taste at all.

In fact, none of it seemed to appeal to him very much any more. That was sophistication, the price that must be paid by a man in the interstellar service, watching the centuries go by without belonging to any one of them. He watched a group of young people flit laughing by, felt an unreasoning irritation. They'd be gone and forgotten when he'd made a few more trips.

One of the young girls noticed him. She broke from the group and approached.

"You're an interstellar, aren't you? I hope you'll join me. I'm Nancy...."

Pete straightened up and looked her over. A little young, maybe nineteen, but that meant a lower premium. Nice blond hair, big waves of it that stayed in place even when she was moving fast, and even when she was standing still she seemed to be moving. She was really alive, smiling and laughing and talking easily, and in a pleasant low voice. Really healthy--that slender but nicely rounded body was good for a hundred years.

But then, money isn't everything.

"A lovely name," he told her. "I like girls with old-fashioned names...."

Nancy, it seemed, wanted to interview a time man in connection with a thesis, and in this particular age there was no taboo against a young girl introducing herself to a strange man. Pete didn't mind at all being interviewed and having dinner with her and seeing the town with her. And even when he had given her enough material for a dozen theses, she didn't seem in any hurry to break off their friendship.

* * * * *

Pete was spending half his waking hours with Nancy and the other half in the men's beauty parlor. Not that he was old--a little prematurely gray and somewhat wrinkled from the hard sun of space and the unkind atmospheres of alien planets. And he had his contact lenses changed--paper was scarce in this era and they were using finer print to stretch the supply. But he was still young. He studied the full length mirror and decided he'd pass for thirty-five. His actual age--that would be hard to guess. Someday he'd look into the company records and figure it out. But mentally, he told himself, I'm a young man, even though I walked through this city five hundred years ago.

A young man in love.

They knew in this era how to make it nice for young people in love, if you could afford one of the better places. Pete sat across the table from Nancy at a tiny table on a roof far above the city. The room was crowded, but some trick of design made it seem that they were alone together. There was real music played by real people. Some of the melodies were old ones that brought a mood of nostalgia to the time man, with memories of past loves. But then he looked across at Nancy, with her innocent laughing eyes, and the beauty of her brought a lump to his throat that drove out all the small loves of the past. This was it. This time he was really in love.

"Pete," she said, "don't you ever get tired of it? Of jumping through the ages, coming back to find your old friends gone, being a stranger in a strange world? For instance, how about me? You'll be back from Sirius or Altair some day, a year or two older, and I'll be an old woman? How does it really feel?"

Pete took her hands and stared earnestly into her eyes. She was more serious than he'd ever seen her as she gazed back at him.

"It's not the right way to live, Nancy. A man doesn't really live, in the real meaning of life. A man needs a woman, a wife he can come home to." He squeezed her hands gently. "Nancy, will you marry me?"

Her hands trembled in his grasp.

"I will, Pete--oh, Pete, I've been so hoping--and so afraid. But, Pete, your job...?"

He smiled reassuringly.

"I'm signed up for a trip, but it's only a short one--that planet of Proxima Centauri they just discovered is on the list for a complete survey. But I'll be back in--seven, eight years. Then we can really settle down."

She bent over the table and kissed him.

"I'll wait, Pete."

"No, Nancy. Now. We'll be married first; I'll still be here a couple of months, why waste them? I don't want to take any chances of losing you."

"I wanted to hear that, Pete." Her eyes were shining with happiness. "About getting married now, I mean--there's no chance of your losing me."

Pete was serious about settling down after the short trip to Proxima. At least he was serious about it now. But after that trip was over....

He didn't think about that sort of thing any more. He had tried to puzzle it out a few times, how he could tell a girl he was making one more trip, and mean it, and then one more and then one more until a happy young girl was suddenly a disillusioned embittered old woman. There was a paradox of conscience here that he had given up trying to resolve. When he said he was making one more trip, he meant it. But at the same time he knew that when he came back he'd sign up for another. If he meant what he said when he said it, even though he knew he'd change his mind later--

His conscience was clear.

And of course a man must be practical. His earnings must be invested, and the future provided for. The honeymoon was still new when the insurance agent responded to Pete's call.

"I've always believed in insurance," he told Nancy. "Of course, no amount of money could console me if I came back and found that something had happened to you. But people must prepare for the unpleasant things in life."

"Of course," said Nancy, who never disagreed with her husband. "We have to be sensible about things. I might have an accident, and so might you. We have to face things like that."

The insurance man was a little dazed. He'd never sold a policy nearly as big as the amount Pete had named.

"Nobody's had an accident on an interstellar ship in hundreds of years," he assured Nancy. "The rate for your husband will be negligible--we expect him to be around for a real long time. Now, sir," he told Pete, "your best buy is our family special--the full value to be paid to the survivor. As I said, the cost for you is trivial, and for your wife...."

He thumbed his rate book nervously. Pete wrote a check to pay the policy in full, and the insurance man walked out in a trance, spending his commission.

And Nancy hadn't noticed that Pete's signature had gone on a guarantee that he wouldn't resign from the interstellar service for at least two hundred years, objective Earth time.

* * * * *

Pete felt a little sad when his leave began to run out. They sat around evenings adoring each other, not too late, because Pete was a man who needed plenty of sleep or he felt irritable the next day. Nancy never took his bad days seriously. The laughing happiness of youth was still in her eyes, but there was a firmness behind it now, the maturity of a girl who knows how to become a woman.

He went down to the spaceport a few times to look over the ship he was signed up for, and took the routine physical. Doctors went over his mind and his body, probing with needles and tubes and questions that were pointless.

"What do you think of the popular songs of today, Mr. Cooper?"

"What do you remember of your mother, Mr. Cooper?"

"Are you interested in girls, Mr. Cooper?"

"Do you have a close friendship with any of the other men in the crew, Mr. Cooper...?"

The routine this time seemed worse than ever. Actually he'd had worse ones, when the medical fashions of the time called for it, but somehow it seemed more annoying this time.

"Five hundred years," he told the doctor. "Five hundred years I've been living this life and I know more about it than you ever will. Captain Drago told me on the trip to Altair--no, Sirius it was, that I was the most devoted man in the service. Pete, he said, when you're aboard, I never worry about the engines, I'd rather have you sitting on them than anybody else. That's the way he talked--sitting on the engines, he called it...."

The doctor watched Pete thoughtfully and made notes on the paper before him. And the next day the mail brought the message that Peter Cooper, Master Engineman First Class, was retired from the service. There was a personal letter of congratulations from an undersecretary, and a notice that his pension would start the first of the following month.

"It's a mistake!" Pete told his wife angrily. "Something's wrong! They didn't talk to Captain Drago like I told them, and--"

Nancy's eyes were indignant. She sent him steaming back with fire in his eyes, but he couldn't change the decision. He did get as far as the office of the doctor who had asked him all the fool questions, and he saw a paper he wasn't meant to see. It stunned him into temporary silence.

But it wasn't true! Positively not!

Definite signs of senility, the notes read. Irritable reaction to questioning. Mind wanders, fixes on irrelevancies. Preoccupation with casual remarks of associates....

And more. He didn't tell Nancy this, nor did he show her the reply he received to his protest.

"While a search of our records indicates a subjective--chronological age of approximately 48.6 years, physiological analysis puts the condition of your body at a much higher figure--it would be guesswork to try to name a figure. However, recent studies indicate that interstellar personnel with long terms of service tend to age at an increasingly rapid rate, due probably to psychological factors stemming from the knowledge of separation from the natal culture....

"We are sorry...."

He kept his hair dark and the wrinkles smoothed out and forced the tiredness from his bones. Other things were harder to fake, but Nancy wasn't a demanding wife. She thought he was about thirty-five, and she thought the blow of being dropped from the service had taken the life from him. She took his part firmly.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Pete. Not one person in a thousand could pass the examination for the interstellar service--they're really tough. And we're together."

"What will we live on?" Pete demanded, knowing he was being too irritable, but unable to control it. He waved the pension check. "Can we live on that? A fine payment for my years of service."

Nancy looked dubiously at the check. "I thought it was a lot ... but don't worry, Pete. You have a wife to stand by you."

* * * * *

When Pete found out how his wife had gone about standing by him, he was almost shocked speechless. Almost.

"You signed up as my replacement on the Proxima expedition! But you can't! It's no job for a woman! And you're leaving me alone--for seven or eight years! They won't take you!"

"They already did." She smiled bravely at him. "As the wife of a retired serviceman I had preference. We need the extra money, Pete. And it won't be for long. When I come back, we'll still be young enough to enjoy life, darling. And they pay well--a few years of sacrifice now will make so much difference in our future...."

Pete closed his eyes and thought of how many times he had said the same words to starry eyed young women. It won't be long ... we'll still be young ... good pay....

Her loving lips tenderly brushed his dark hair.

* * * * *

On nice days, Pete sits in a rocking chair on the porch with the other old men. He doesn't bother to dye his hair any more and he reads now with a thick glass, complaining about the small type they use nowadays. The attendants laugh off his irritability, and some of the visitors who come to see the other old men don't mind listening to his stories about the interstellar service.

When it gets toward dusk, he looks into the sky sometimes as the stars appear. Centaurus isn't really there, not here in the northern hemisphere, but he looks anyway. Out there in space, his wife is doing a man's job. Wonderful woman, Elsie.

Not Elsie--Nancy. How could he have made that mistake. Nancy, a laughing young girl who had grown swiftly into a strong mature woman defending her man and her marriage vows.

He leans back and rocks faster then, a smile on his face. Sometimes the visitors see him and shake their heads sympathetically, and sometimes he sees them doing it, but it doesn't matter. They don't know. They don't know about his nest egg, that insurance policy he's going to collect some day now, because he's going to straighten them out down at the interstellar bureau. Captain Drago will straighten them out, and then he's going back into space and support his wife as a man should.

And sometimes the smile fades and a tear rolls down his cheeks when he thinks of Nancy growing old and passing away and the insurance man giving him a check and a few words of sympathy. But a man has to be practical about such things.