Steven Russell was born a misfit, a nonconformist, and for the first five years of his life he made himself and his parents extremely unhappy. The twenty-first century was perfect, and this inexplicable child did not like perfection.
The first trouble arose over his food. His mother did not nurse him, since the doctors had proved that Baby-Lac, and the soft rainbow-colored plastic containers in which it was warmed and offered, were both a vast improvement on nature. Steven drank the Baby-Lac, but though it was hard to credit in so young a child, sometimes his face wore an expression of pure distaste.
A little later he rejected the Baby Oatsies and Fruitsies and Meatsies, and his large half-focused eyes wept at the jolly pictures on the jarsies. He disliked his plastic dish made like a curled-up Jolly Kitten, and his spoon with the Happy Clown’s head on the handle. He turned his face away determinedly and began to pine, reducing his mother to tears and his father to frightened anger.
The doctor said cheerily, “There’s nothing the matter with him. He’ll eat when he gets hungry enough,” and Steven did, to a degree, but not as if he enjoyed it.
One day when he was nearly a year old, his mother carried his Kiddie Korner with the Dancing Dogsies on the pad into her bedroom, put him in it, and began to take things out of the bottom bureau drawer. They were old things, and Harriet Russell was ashamed of them. She had said more than once to her husband Richard, only half joking, “I couldn’t give them away, and I’d be ashamed for anybody to see them in our trash!” They were old silver, knives and forks and spoons that looked like what they were, unadorned, and a child’s plain silver dish and cup, and one small spoon with a useful curly handle. They had belonged to Harriet’s great-grandmother. Once a year Harriet took the things out and polished them and furtively put them back.
This year Steven cried, “Ma!” stretching out his hands toward the silver and uttering a string of determined sounds which were perfectly clear to his mother. She smiled at him lovingly but shook her head. “No, Stevie. Mumsie’s precious baby doesn’t want those nasty old things, no he doesn’t! Play with your Happy Clown, sweetheart.”
Steven’s face got red, and he squeezed his eyes shut, opened his mouth and howled until his mother passed him the dish and cup and curly spoon to play with. At meal-time he would not be parted from them, and Harriet had to put away the plastic dish and spoon. Thereafter, for the sake of the container, he tolerated the thing contained, and thrived and grew fat.
Steven did not like his Rockabye Crib, that joggled him gently and sang him songs about the Happy Clown all night long; and he howled until they turned it off. He was a clean boy, and to his mother’s amazement trained himself to be dry day and night by the age of fourteen months, without the aid of the Singing Toidey or the Happy Clown Alarm; so she bought him a Little Folks Youth Bed, with a built-in joggler, and Happy Clowns on the corners, and a television set in the footboard. It was a smaller copy of his parents’ bed, even to the Happy Clowns. Steven did not like that either, and if his parents persisted in turning the bed on after he had learned to turn it off, he climbed out and slept on the floor.
Harriet said worriedly to her husband, “I don’t know what could be the matter with him. Dickie, he’s peculiar!”
Richard tried to comfort her. “Never mind, Harry, he’ll outgrow it.”
Steven did not outgrow it. When he became too big for the curly spoon and dish and cup he demanded a knife and fork and spoon from the bureau drawer and ate his meals from the plainest dish he could find. He ate them with his back stubbornly turned to the television set, away from the morning cartoons and the noontime Kiddies’ Lunch Club and the evening Happy Clown.
The Happy Clown had been an American institution for thirty years. He was on television for an hour every night at dinner time, with puppets and movies and live singers and dancers and his own inimitable brand of philosophy and humor. Everybody loved the Happy Clown. He had been several different actors in thirty years, but his makeup never changed: the beaming face drawn in vivid colors, the rotund body that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of Jellsies, and the chuckling infectious laugh. The Happy Clown was always so cheerful and folksy and sincere. He believed passionately in all the products he instructed his viewers to buy, and one was entirely certain that he used them all himself.
He gave one much more than advertising, though. Some of his nightly gems of wisdom (he called them nuggets) were really wonderful; they made one think. A favorite nugget, which people were always writing in and asking him to repeat, went like this: “We’re all alike inside, folks, and we ought to be all alike outside.” The Happy Clown’s viewers were not children and adults, they were kiddies and folks.
After the Happy Clown went off the air the happy kiddies went to bed, to lie for a while looking at the Jolly Kitten and the Dancing Dogsie, until, lulled by the joggler, they went gently to sleep. After that came the cowboys and spacemen, carryovers for any happy kiddies with insomnia. For really meaty programs one had to stay up past ten. Then the spectaculars began, and the quiz shows, and the boxing and wrestling.
Steven did not like the Happy Clown or the Jolly Kitten or the Dancing Dogsie. Sometimes he began to grow interested in the cowboys or spacemen, but when they stopped in the middle of an adventure to talk about how they could not possibly rope the steers or shoot the asteroids without a good breakfast of Cornsies and Choko-Milko, which everybody ate, just everybody, Steven climbed out of bed and slept on the floor.
Steven did not like the records or the talking books, and when he went to kiddie-garden he viewed the televised lessons with a cold eye. For some reason which he could not have explained, he wanted to learn to read, but they would not teach him till he was seven, and so he taught himself, from the letters on the jarsies. But then there was nothing to read except the newspapers and the magazines, which he puzzled over patiently, getting most of the words right after a while. The many advertisements were easiest; they used pictures and the simplest of language.
His parents thought it was very cunning of him to look at the printing like that, so wisely, as if he could read it! He said once to Harriet, “I can read it,” but she said, “Oh, Stevie, you’re teasing Mumsie!” and looked so frightened at this fresh peculiarity that the child said gravely, “Yes, teasing.” He wished he had a silent book. He knew there were such things, but there were none at home. There were few silent books anywhere. There were none in kiddie-garden.
Steven was not happy in kiddie-garden. The enthusiasm the other kiddies showed for the lessons appalled him. The kiddies themselves appalled him. They joined so passionately in the group play, clutching each other with their hot moist hands, panting and grinning into each others’ faces. They were always clutching and panting and grinning, in large noisy groups, with large community smiles. They confused him; he could not tell them apart. Steven retired to a corner and turned his back, and when they clutched and panted and grinned at him he hit them.
The kiddie-garden monitor had to report of him to his unhappy parents that he was uncooperative and anti-social. He would not merge with the group, he would not acquire the proper attitudes for successful community living, he would not adjust. Most shocking of all, when the lesson about the birdsies and beesies was telecast, he not only refused to participate in the ensuing period of group experimentation, but lost color and disgraced himself by being sick in his corner. It was a painful interview. At the end of it the monitor recommended the clinic. Richard appreciated her delicacy. The clinic would be less expensive than private psychiatry, and after all, the manager of a supermarket was no millionaire.
Harriet said to Richard when they were alone, “Dickie, he isn’t outgrowing it, he’s getting worse! What are we going to do?” It was a special tragedy, since Harriet was unable to have any more kiddies, and if this one turned out wrong …
Richard said firmly, “We’ll take him to the clinic. They’ll know what to do.”
The first thing they did to Steven was to talk to him. The psychiatrist made him lie down on a foam rubber couch, kiddies’ model, with the Happy Clown motif on the slip-cover, and said with a beaming face, “Now, Stevie, what seems to be the trouble?”
The boy turned his head away from the psychiatrist’s shining teeth and said, “My name’s not Stevie. It’s Steven.” He was a thin little boy, rather undersized. The baby fat had melted away fast when he began to be exposed to kiddie-garden. He had dark hair and big eyes and an uncommonly precise way of speaking for a child of five.
The psychiatrist said, “Oh, but we’re going to be friends, Stevie, and friends always use nicknames, don’t they? My name’s William, but everybody calls me Willie. You can call me Uncle Willie.”
The boy said politely, “I’d rather not, please.”
The doctor was undismayed. “I want to help you. You believe that, don’t you, Stevie?”
The child said, “Steven. Do I have to lie down?”
The doctor said agreeably, “It’s more usual to lie down, but you may sit up if you want to. Why don’t you like kiddie-garden, Steven?”
The boy sat up and regarded him warily. The doctor had a kind face, a really kind face in spite of all those shining teeth, and Steven was only five years old, after all, and there was nobody to talk to, and he was desperately unhappy. Perhaps…. He said, “You’ll tell them.”
The doctor shook his head. “Nothing goes farther than this room, Stevie—Steven.”
The child leaned forward, pressing his knees together, hugging himself with his arms, bowing his head. His position was almost foetal. He said, “I’m never by myself. They never let me be by myself.”
The psychiatrist said reasonably, “But nobody can live by himself, Stevie.” He had apparently forgotten Steven, and the boy did not correct him again. “You have to learn to live with other people, to work and play with them, to know them, and the only way you can learn is by being with them. When you can’t be with them personally, there’s always television. That’s how you learn, Stevie. You can’t be by yourself.”
The boy looked up and said starkly, “Never?”
The gleaming teeth showed. “But why should you want to?”
Steven said, “I don’t know.”
The doctor said, slowly and with emphasis, “Stevie, long before you were born the world was a very bad place. There were wars all the time. Do you know why?”
The boy shook his head.
“It was because people were different from each other, and didn’t understand each other, and didn’t know each other. They had to learn how to be alike, and understand, and know, so that they would be able to live together. They learned in many ways, Stevie. One way was by visiting each other—you’ve heard about the visitors who come from—”
Steven said, “You mean the Happy Tours.”
“Yes. When you’re twelve years old you can go on a Happy Tour. Won’t that be fun?”
Steven said, “If I could go alone.”
The doctor looked at him sharply. “But you can’t. Try to understand, Stevie, you can’t. Now tell me—why don’t you like to be with other people?”
Steven said, “All the time—not all the time.”
The doctor repeated patiently, “Why?”
Steven looked at the doctor and said a very strange thing. “They touch me.” He seemed to shrink into himself. “Not just with their hands.”
The doctor shook his head sadly. “Of course they do, that’s just—well, maybe you’re too young to understand.”
The interview went on for quite a while, and at the end of it Steven was given a series of tests which took a week. The psychiatrist had not told the truth; what the boy said, during the first interview and all the tests, was fully recorded on concealed machines. The complete transcript made a fat dossier in the office of the Clinic Director.
At the end of the tests the Director said seriously to Steven’s parents, “I’ll be frank with you. You have a brilliant kiddie here—right now he has the intelligence of a twelve-year-old—but brilliance has to be channeled in the right direction. Just now—well, frankly, it’s channeled in the wrong direction. We’ll give it a year or so, and then if things don’t clear up I’m afraid we’ll have to correct him.”
Richard said through dry lips, “You mean a Steyner?”
The Director nodded. “The only thing.”
Harriet shuddered and began to cry. “But there’s never been anything like that in our family! The disgrace—oh, Dickie, it would kill me!”
The Director said kindly, “There’s no disgrace, Mrs. Russell. That’s a mistaken idea many people have. These things happen occasionally—nobody knows why—and there’s absolutely no disgrace in a Steyner. Nothing is altered but the personality, and afterward you have a happy normal kiddie who hardly remembers that anything was ever wrong with him. Naturally nobody ever mentions it…. But there’s no hurry; in the case of a kiddie we can wait a while. Bring Stevie in once a week; we’ll try therapy first.”
Being, as the Director had said, a brilliant kiddie, Steven soon understood much of what was kept from him. It did not take him long to learn what was making his Dadsie look stern and white and what was making his Mumsie cry. He loved his parents and did not want them to be unhappy, and he certainly did not want to have his head cut open, and so he began to act. Even at five, Steven discovered in himself a fine talent for acting. He began to conform, to adjust, to merge. He became social and cooperative and acquired the proper attitudes for successful community living. He gave up the old silver voluntarily, he accepted the Youth Bed, he looked at the Happy Clown, and he did much better in kiddie-garden. He even joined in the group experimentation and was not sick any more, though he could not keep himself from losing color.
They were pleased with him at the clinic and after a few months discharged him. By the time Steven was twelve and had made the Happy Tour and joined the Happy Scouts and had a happy affair, involving experimentation, with a neighbor’s daughter, Harriet and Richard ceased to worry about him. If sometimes he felt so tightly strung-up that a storm of tears was his only relief, he kept the tears quiet.
He was graduated from high school at sixteen and from college at twenty, having read all he could of the silent books in the scant high school library and the more ample university one, and having wisely elected to appear more stupid than he was. Even his I.Q. was now judged to be only slightly above normal. He left college with honors, popularity and a reputation as an actor. He took the lead in all the dramatic club plays, having particular success in the reproduction of a Happy Clown program. Steven, of course, was the Happy Clown. He enrolled at once in the New York School of Television Arts, and his mother cried when he left home to live in the School dormitory.
Steven did well at Television Arts, soon taking more leads than was customary in School productions, which were organized on a strictly repertory basis. He did not stay to graduate, being snatched away in his first year by a talent scout for a popular daytime serial, “The Happy Life.”
“The Happy Life” recounted the trials of a young physician, too beautiful for his own good, who became involved in endless romantic complications. Steven was given the lead, the preceding actor having moved up to a job as understudy for the Jolly Kitten, and was an immediate success. For one thing he looked the part. He was singularly handsome in a lean dark-browed way and did not need flattering makeup or special camera angles. He had a deep vibrant voice and perfect timing. He could say, “Darling, this is tearing me to pieces!” with precisely the right intonation, and let tears come into his magnificent eyes, and make his jaw muscles jump appealingly, and hold the pose easily for the five minutes between the ten-minute pitch for Marquis cigarettes which constituted one episode of “The Happy Life.” His fan mail was prodigious.
If Steven had moments of bewilderment, of self-loathing, of despair, when the tears were real and the jaw muscles jumped to keep the mouth from screaming, no one in the Happy Young Men’s dormitory where he slept ever knew it.
He managed his life well enough. He had a few affairs with girls, it was expected of one, and he did not have to work very hard at it since they always threw themselves at him; and he got along well with other young men, who forgave him for being so handsome because he did not work at it except on camera; but he was lonely. Surrounded by people, intruded and trespassed upon, continually touched in ways other than physical, he was yet lonely.
During his life he had met a few other nonconformists, shy, like him, wary of revealing themselves, but something always seemed to happen to them. Some were miserable being nonconformists and asked pitifully for the Steyner, some were detected, as Steven had been, and some were unfortunately surprised in hospitals. Under the anesthetic they sometimes talked, and then, if they were adults, they were immediately corrected by means of Steyner’s lobotomy. It had been learned that adults did not respond to therapy.
There was never any organization, any underground, of misfits. An underground presupposes injustice to be fought, cruelty to be resisted, and there was no injustice and no cruelty. The mass of people were kind, and their leaders, duly and fairly elected, were kind. They all sincerely believed in the gospel of efficiency and conformity and kindness. It had made the world a wonderful place to live in, full of wonderful things to make and buy and consume (all wonderfully advertised), and if one were a misfit and the doctors found it out and gave one a Steyner, it was only to make one happy, so that one could appreciate what a wonderful world it was.
Steven met no nonconformists at the School of Television Arts, and none while he was acting in “The Happy Life” until Denise Cottrell joined the cast. Denise—called Denny, of course—was a pleasantly plain young woman with a whimsical face which photographed pretty, and remarkable dark blue eyes. It was her eyes which first made Steven wonder. They mirrored his own hope, and longing, and the desperate loneliness of the exile.
For two months they were together as often as they could be, talking intellectual treason in public under cover of conventional faces, and talking intellectual treason in private with excitement and laughter and sometimes tears—falling in love. They planned, after much discussion, to be married and to bring up a dozen clever rebel children. Denise said soberly, “They’d better be clever, because they’ll have to learn to hide.”
They made love in Denise’s apartment when her roommate Pauline—Polly—was out, as awkwardly as if there had never been any group experimentation or happy affairs. Denise said wonderingly, “When you really love someone it’s all new. Isn’t that strange?” and Steven said, kissing her, “No, not strange at all.”
He took her to meet his family—Denise’s family lived three thousand miles away—and she behaved with such perfect decorum and charm that Richard and Harriet were delighted and as eager as Steven for the wedding. Steven had agreed reluctantly to put it off until Denise had a chance to introduce him to her parents; they were coming East at Christmas. She laughed over it and said, “I’m being terribly conventional, darling, but that’s one convention I like.”
While they waited, Steven’s agent secured a really unprecedented opportunity for so young and relatively untried an actor. The current Happy Clown was unhappily retiring, by reason of age and infirmity, and Steven’s agent arranged a tryout for the part. He said, “Give it all you got, kid; it’s the chance of the century.”
Steven said, “Sure, Joey,” and allowed his sensitive face to register all the proper emotions. Actually his emotions were, in the vernacular of a previous century, mixed. He loathed the whole concept of the Happy Clown—but there was money in it, and Steven was not rebel enough to despise money. With money he could retire early, go away somewhere with Denise, to some country place where they could be relatively free of pressure.
Over staggering competition he got the part. He called Denise up at once from a booth at the studio to tell her. Polly answered the phone, looking pale and frightened over the viewer, and said rapidly, “Oh, Stevie, I’ve been trying to get you for an hour. Denny’s sick. They took her to the hospital!”
Steven sat back against the hard wall of the booth, feeling cold, the receiver slack in his hand. He said, “What’s the matter with her? Which hospital?”
“Ap-pendicitis. Happy Hour.” Polly began to cry. “Oh, Stevie, I feel so—”
“I’ll go right over.” He cut her off abruptly and went.
The doctors caught Denise’s appendix in time to avoid the necessary but rarely fatal complications … but under the anesthetic she talked, revealing enough about her opinion of television, and the Happy Clown cult, and the state of society in general, to cause her doctors to raise their eyebrows pityingly and perform the Steyner at once. While Steven sat unknowing in the waiting room, smoking a full pack of Marquis cigarettes, the thing was done.
At last the doctor came out to him and said what was always said in such cases. “It was necessary to do something—you understand, no mention—” and for a moment Steven felt so ill that he was grateful for the little ampoule the doctor broke and held under his nose. They always carried those when they had to give news of a Steyner to relatives or sweethearts or friends.
The doctor said, “All right now? Good …. You’ll be careful, of course. She may be conscious for a minute; there’s no harm in it yet, she won’t move or touch the—”
Steven said, “I’ll be careful.”
He was still feeling ill when they let him in to see Denise. He sat down beside her bed and spoke to her urgently. “Denise, talk to me. Please, Denise!”
She opened her eyes, looked at him drowsily and smiled. “Oh, Stevie, I’m so glad you came. I’ve been wanting you, darling.”
Steven said, “Denise—”
She frowned. “Why do you call me that? Call me Denny. Did you get the part, darling?”
He drew back a little. “Yes, I got it.”
She gave him a radiant smile. “That’s wonderful! I’m so proud of you, Stevie.” She slept again.
That night in the HYM dormitory Steven did not sleep. He lay quiet, tense, hoping for the relief of tears, but it did not come.
Steven went to see Denise every day though after the first time she was not awake to know him. The doctors were keeping her under sedation until the head bandage could be removed. So far as Denise was to know, she had gone to the hospital simply for a rather protracted appendectomy. Looking at her, Steven knew that he could never leave her. He had loved her completely; he would love her now with as much of himself as she would need or understand.
For a while he waited to be kindly questioned, to be thoroughly examined, to be tenderly given the shot in the arm and to awake like her, but nobody came. Denise had apparently said nothing about him. Some censor or other—perhaps it was the censor of love—had kept her from even saying his name.
For a while Steven considered confessing to somebody that he was a—what?—an unacceptable member of society. Then they would make him like Denise. He shuddered. Did he really want to be like Denise? Some stubborn pride in him refused it.
When Denise left the hospital for the hotel where she would stay until the wedding, Steven was more gentle with her than ever, kinder and more loving. He made her very happy. He made love to her again, and it was like loving a ghost—no, it was like loving a fine beautiful body without the ghost, without the spirit. He returned to the HYM to lie sleepless amid the breathings and mutterings of the other young men, turning restlessly in his bed, feeling oppressed, tormented, strung on wires.
He rehearsed feverishly for the part of the Happy Clown, and because he was a fine craftsman and a conscientious artist he continued to give it all he had. The sponsors were pleased. A week before Christmas the current Happy Clown retired and hobbled off to a nursing home. There was no fanfare—the public was not to realize that the Happy Clown was mortal—and Steven took over with no visible change. For five days he played the part to perfection.
On the sixth day he performed as usual, perhaps a little better. His commercials had a special fervor, and the sponsors exchanged happy glances. Denise was sitting in the booth with them; she smiled at Steven lovingly through the glass.
Steven was running a little fast tonight. The engineer made stretching motions with his hands to slow him down, but he used up all his material, even the nugget, with three minutes to spare. Then he said, “All right, folks, now I have a special treat for you,” and moved quickly to the center mike. Before the sponsors, or the engineers, or the studio audience, or anybody in the whole American nation knew what was happening, he began rapidly to talk.
He said, “Are you all happy? You are, aren’t you?—everybody’s happy, because you’re all sheep! All sheep, in a nice safe pasture. All alike—you eat alike and dress alike and think alike. If any of you has an original thought you’d better suppress it, or they’ll cut it out of you with a knife.” He leaned forward and made a horrible face at the camera. Under the jolly makeup and the artful padding, his mouth was shockingly twisted, and tears were running out of his eyes. “A long sharp knife, folks!” He paused momentarily to recover his voice, which had begun to shake. “Go on being happy, go on being sheep. Wear the clothesies, and eat the foodsies, and don’t dare think! Me—I’d rather be dead, and damned, and in hell!”
Fortunately nobody heard the last three sentences. The paralyzed engineer had recovered in time to cut him off during the pause, and had signalled the stagehand to draw the curtain and the sound man to play the Happy Clown sign-off record—loud. Steven finished himself thoroughly, however, by repeating the same sentiments, with some others he happened to think of, to Denise and the sponsors, when they all came pouring out of the booth. Then he collapsed.
Steven’s Steyner was a complete success. He recovered from it a subdued, agreeable and thoroughly conventional young man, who had the impression that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. He was discharged from the Happy Hour at the end of January, innocently leaving behind him the broken hearts of three nurses and one female physician, and went home to his parents. During his convalescence they were patient with him and passionately kind. In spite of the disgrace they felt, a disgrace that would never be mentioned, they loved him even better than before, because now he was irrevocably like them.
Denise was lost to him. The outburst in the studio, and the Steyner, and the loss of the Happy Clown part were cumulatively too much for her. She broke the engagement and was heard to say that Stevie Russell had proved himself an absolute fool. He was miserable over it, though he had only a hazy idea of what he had done or why Denny should suddenly be so unkind to him.
The Happy Clown incident had passed off well—immediately after it occurred, a powerful battery of comedians, including the Jolly Kitten and the Dancing Dogsie, forgetting rivalries to rally ’round in a crisis, went on the air to insure that it passed off well. They made certain that every viewer should regard the whole thing as a tremendously funny if rather mystifying joke. The viewers fell in with this opinion easily and laughed about the sheep joke a good deal, admiring the Happy Clown’s sense of humor—a little sharp, to be sure, not so folksy and down-to-earth as usual, but the Happy Clown could do no wrong. They said to each other, “He laughed till he cried, did you notice? So did I!” For a while teenagers addressed each other as, “Hi, sheep!” (girls were, “Hi, lamb!”), and a novelty company in Des Moines made a quick killing with scatter pins fashioned like sheep and/or lambs.
But, around the studios Steven was dead. Steyner or no Steyner—and of course that part of it was never openly discussed—sponsors had long memories, and the consensus seemed to be that it was best to let sleeping sheep lie. Steven did not care. He no longer had any particular desire to be an actor.
Steven went to work in his father’s supermarket and was happy among the shelves of Oatsies and Cornsies and Jellsies. He got over Denise after a while and met a girl named Frances—Franny—whom he loved and who loved him. They were married in the summer and had a little house with as much furniture in it as they could afford. The first thing they bought was a television set. After all, as Stevie said, he would not want to miss the Happy Clown.