The Complete Stories (Page 213)
Samson Harridge had a private car though, and I went to him the minute it arrived. The car wasn’t Matthew to me then. I didn’t know it was going to
be the dean of the Farm some day. I only knew it was taking my job away and I hated it.
I said, "You won’t be needing me any more, Mr. Harridge?"
He said, "What are you dithering about, Jake? You don’t think I’ll trust myself to a contraption like that, do you? You stay right at the controls."
I said, "But it works by itself, Mr. Harridge. It scans the road, reacts properly to obstacles, humans, and other cars, and remembers routes to travel."
"So they say. So they say. Just the same, you’re sitting right behind the wheel in case anything goes wrong."
Funny how you can get to like a car. In no time I was calling it Matthew and was spending all my time keeping it polished and humming. A positronic brain stays in condition best when it’s got control of its chassis at all times, which means it’s worth keeping the gas tank filled so that the motor can turn over slowly day and night. After a while, it got so I could tell by the sound of the motor how Matthew felt.
In his own way, Harridge grew fond of Matthew, too. He had no one else to like. He’d divorced or outlived three wives and outlived five children and three grandchildren. So when he died, maybe it wasn’t surprising that he had his estate converted into a Farm for Retired Automobiles, with me in charge and Matthew the first member of a distinguished line.
It’s turned out to be my life. I never got married. You can’t get married and still tend to automatics the way you should.
The newspapers thought it was funny, but after a while they stopped joking about it. Some things you can’t joke about. Maybe you’ve never been able to afford an automatic and maybe you never will, either, but take it from me, you get to love them. They’re hard-working and affectionate. It takes a man with no heart to mistreat one or to see one mistreated.
It got so that after a man had an automatic for a while, he would make provisions for having it left to the Farm, if he didn’t have an heir he could rely on to give it good care.
I explained that to Gellhorn.
He said, "Fifty-one cars! That represents a lot of money."
"Fifty thousand minimum per automatic, original investment," I said. "They’re worth a lot more now. I’ve done things for them."
"It must take a lot of money to keep up the Farm."
"You’re right there. The Farm’s a non-profit organization, which gives us a break on taxes and, of course, new automatics that come in usually have trust funds attached. Still, costs are always going up. I have to keep the place landscaped; I keep laying down new asphalt and keeping the old in repair; there’s gasoline, oil, repairs, and new gadgets. It adds up."
"And you’ve spent a long time at it."
"I sure have, Mr. Gellhorn. Thirty-three years."
"You don’t seem to be getting much out of it yourself."
"I don’t? You surprise me, Mr. Gellhorn. I’ve got Sally and fifty others. Look at her."
I was grinning. I couldn’t help it. Sally was so clean, it almost hurt. Some insect must have died on her windshield or one speck of dust too many had landed, so she was going to work. A little tube protruded and spurted Tergosol over the glass. It spread quickly over the silicone surface film and squeejees snapped into place instantly, passing over the windshield and forcing the. water into the little channel that led it, dripping, down to the ground. Not a speck of water got onto her glistening apple-green hood. Squeejee and detergent tube snapped back into place and disappeared.
Gellhorn said, "I never saw an automatic do that."
"I guess not," I said. "I fixed that up specially on our cars. They’re clean. They’re always scrubbing their glass. They like it. I’ve even got Sally fixed up with wax jets. She polishes herself every night till you can see your face in any part of her and shave by it. If I can scrape up the money, I’d be putting it on the rest of the girls. Convertibles are very vain."
"I can tell you how to scrape up the money, if that interests you."
"That always does. How?"
"Isn’t it obvious, fake? Any of your cars is worth fifty thousand minimum, you said. I’ll bet most of them top six figures."
"Ever think of selling a few?"
I shook my head. "You don’t realize it, I guess, Mr. Gellhorn, but I can’t sell any of these. They belong to the Farm, not to me."
"The money would go to the Farm."
"The incorporation papers of the Farm provide that the cars receive perpetual care. They can’t be sold."
"What about the motors, then?"
"I don’t understand you."
Gellhorn shifted position and his voice got confidential. "Look here, Jake, let me explain the situation. There’s a big market for private automatics if they could only be made cheaply enough. Right?"
"That’s no secret."
"And ninety-five per cent of the cost is the motor. Right? Now, I know where we can get a supply of bodies. I also know where we can sell automatics at a good price-twenty or thirty thousand for the cheaper models, maybe fifty or sixty for the better ones. All I need are the motors. You see the solution?"
"I don’t, Mr. Gellhorn." I did, but I wanted him to spell it out.
"It’s right here. You’ve got fifty-one of them. You’re an expert auto-matobile mechanic, Jake. You must be. You could unhook a motor and place it in another car so that no one would know the difference."
"It wouldn’t be exactly ethical."
"You wouldn’t be harming the cars. You’d be doing them a favor. Use your older cars. Use that old Mat-O-Mot."