Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Button, Button

I posted this 12 years ago, almost to the day.

It breaks my heart that it stands up as well or better now than it did back then.

Here is an excerpt:
You know Richard Matheson.

You may not know you know him, but you do. You’ve read or seen his work.

It’s unavoidable.

He, for example, wrote a fair chunk of the original “Twilight Zone” episodes. He wrote “I Am Legend”, which was brought to the screen first as “The Omega Man”, and to which pretty much every zombie/vampire-army movie ever shot owes a fat debt.

“The Shrinking Man” (they added “Incredible” to the title when they made it into a movie, because apparently a shrinking man by itself isn’t prima facie incredible enough) is his.

He did the script for Spielberg's first flick -- "Duel" -- (which, if you haven’t seen it, is “Jaws”...on land...with a big-ass truck instead of a big-ass shark.) and the script for the original teevee movie “The Night Stalker” (And, because Chris Carter knew and honored his own teevee lineage, why he created an homage to the master in the person of “Senator Matheson” on the “X-Files”.)

This list just scratches the surface. There’s a lot more, but this post isn’t my paean to Mr. Matheson. It's to put across the point that he is in the cultural groundwater. And, in this lad’s ‘umble opinion, at least one of his stories should always be included in the canon of speculative fiction that every school kid should be required to read (strapping into those "A Clockwork Orange" eyelid-spreaders if necessary), along with Jackson’s “The Lottery”, “The Flag”, Damon Knight’s "To Serve Man"...and any of a dozen wonders by Bradbury.

The specific piece by Matheson I have in mind is called “Button, Button”.

It first appeared in Playboy magazine in 1970 (See, Mom. I really was reading it for the articles.) and it's been buzzing hornet-like around in my skull very much these last many months. [After reading it] I double-dog-dare you to tell me that good science fiction is or has ever been “escapist” in any sense (emphasis added)....
The package was lying by the front door—a cube-shaped carton sealed with tape, their name and address printed by hand: “Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, 217 E. Thirty-seventh Street, New York 10016.”

Norma picked it up, unlocked the door, and went into the apartment. It was just getting dark. After she put the lamb chops in the broiler, she sat down to open the package. Inside the carton was a push-button unit fastened to a small wooden box. A glass dome covered the button. Norma tried to lift it off, but it was locked in place. She turned the unit over and saw a folded piece of paper Scotch-taped to the bottom of the box. She pulled it off: “Mr. Steward will call on you at 8:00 p.m.” Norma put the button unit beside her on the couch. She reread the typed note, smiling. A few moments later, she went back into the kitchen to make the salad.

The doorbell rang at eight o’clock. “I’ll get it,” Norma called from the kitchen. Arthur was in the living room, reading. There was a small man in the hallway. He removed his hat as Norma opened the door.

“Mrs. Lewis?” he inquired politely.

“I’m Mr. Steward.”

“Oh, yes.” Norma repressed a smile. She was sure now it was a sales pitch.

“May I come in?” asked Mr. Steward.

“I’m rather busy,” Norma said. “I’ll get you your watchamacallit, though.”

She started to turn.

“Don’t you want to know what it is?” Norma turned back.

Mr. Steward’s tone had been offensive. “No, I don’t think so,” she replied.

“It could prove very valuable,” he told her.

“Monetarily?”she challenged

Mr. Steward nodded. “Monetarily,” he said.

Norma frowned. She didn’t like his attitude.

“What are you trying to sell?” she asked.

“I’m not selling anything,” he answered.

Arthur came out of the living room.

“Something wrong”

Mr. Steward introduced himself.

“Oh, the –” Arthur pointed toward the living room and smiled. “What is that gadget anyway?”

“It won’t take long to explain,” replied Mr. Steward. “May I come in?”

“If you’re selling something—,” Arthur said.
He hesitated. “Well, why not?” he said.

They went into the living room and Mr. Steward sat in Norma’s chair. He reached into an inside coat pocket and withdrew a small sealed envelope.

“Inside here is a key to the bell- unit dome,” he said. He set the envelope on the chairside table. “The bell is connected to our office.”

“What’s it for?” asked Arthur.

“If you push the button,” Mr. Steward told him, “somewhere in the world someone you don’t know will die. In return for which you will receive a payment of $50,000.”
Let’s be clear; in America in 2006, this is not a fable. This is not a cautionary fable dressed up in science fiction nomeclature.

This is about the world, now.

The United States, now.

In 2004, when the GOP rank and file lockstepped into their polling places to re-elect liars and criminals, they pushed the button.

When they stand by and applaud reckless, useless butchery on the promise that the indiscriminate slaughter will somehow make them incrementally safer and keep their pump prices low, they push the button.

When conservatives of my acquaintence say – in all seriousness – “Fuck it. Kill ‘em all. They all hate us anyway,” they push the button.

When a drooling slab of racist slunkmeat like Michael Savage calls for wholesale homicide to the orgasmic squeals of the pig people, they stomp up and down on the button.

They push the button because they are drowning in their own fear and voting for the bastards that are holding their heads underwater. Because they are weak men. Cowardly men. Hateful men, who have lent their electoral authority to other weaklings and cowards to wholesale curbstomp brown people in their name.

Because it costs them nothing.

History gave them a chance to show the world their true faces. A chance to proceeding with the long, hard job of dealing with real enemies and real problems with care and gravity. Intelligence. Maturity. Focus.

Instead we got The Bicycle Chief and his Gang that Couldn't Loot Straight.

Twice. Fucking twice.

This was their moral acid test; one which they have failed spectacularly.

Safe in their basements, shielded by layers of greasy ass-fat and whistle-clean, fraidy-cat arsenals they will never use, kept Mommy’s-womb-safe by the gangsters and hucksters they elect and re-elect over and over and over again from having to spend a single dime or shed a single drop of blood, they have been given their heart's darkest, fondest wish: to kill brown people by remote control and have someone else pick up the tab.

Every day they push the button.

Every. Single. Day.
If the last 12 years have proven anything, it is that they will go right on smirking and sneering and pushing the button until it is slapped out of their hands once and for all.

Behold, a Tip Jar!


Robt said...

In modern day conservative (revised) lexicon for pleasure on the palate.

Coffee boys by any other name.....

Rudolf Höss (Commandant) or otherwise known as the Coffee boy of Auschwitz.

In Russia, replaces Coffee with Vodka.
Would make Trump, Putin's Vodka boy.

The force is definitely strong in this one, who wrote this 12 years ago.

For the rebellion doesn't begin but merely continues.

Zeedokk said...

This story was also made into a movie called “The Box” with Frank Langella. Thought you should know.

The Kraken said...

The movie was really good. I can’t wait to read the story.