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Nano Comes to Clifford Falls by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is the author of twenty-three books. Her work has been translated into fourteen languages, including—to the author’s bemusement—Klingon. Nancy is currently working on a medical thriller. Her last story for us, “My Mother, Dancing” (June 2004) is a current finalist for the Nebula Award.

 

 

I was weeding the garden when nanotech came to my town. The city got it a month earlier, but I haven’t been to the city since last year. Some of my neighbors went—Angie Myers and Emma Karlson and that widow, Mrs. Blanston, from church. They brought back souvenirs, things made in the nanomachine, and the scarf Angie showed me was really cute. But with three little kids, I don’t get out much.

That day was hot, with the July sun hanging overhead like it wasn’t ever going to move. Bob McPhee from next door stuck his head over the fence. His Rottweiler snarled through the chain links. I don’t like that dog, and Kimee, my middle one, is afraid of it.

“Hey, Carol, don’t you know you don’t have to do that no more?” Bob said. “The nanomachinery will make you all the tomatoes and peas you want.”

“Hey, Bob,” I said. I went on weeding, swiping at the sweat on my forehead with the back of my hand. Jackie watched me from the shade of the garage. I’d laid him on a blanket dressed in just his diaper and he was having a fine time kicking away and then stopping to eat his toes.

“They’re giving Clifford Falls four of ’em,” Bob said. Since he retired from the fire department, he don’t have enough to do all day. “I saw it on TV. The mayor’s getting ’em installed in the town hall.”

“That’s good,” I said, to say something. I could hear Will and Kimee inside the kitchen, fighting over some toy.

“Mayor’ll run the machinery. One for food, one for clothing, the other two he’s taking requests. I already put in mine, for a sports car.”

That got my attention. “A car? A whole car?”

“Sure, why not? Nano can make anything. The town is starting with one request from each person, first come first served. Then after that . . . I dunno. I guess Mayor Johnson’ll work it out. Hey, gorgeous, stop that weeding and come have a beer with me. Pretty gal like you shouldn’t be getting all hot and sweaty at weeding.”

He leered at me, but he don’t mean anything by it. At least, I don’t think he does. Bob’s over fifty but still looks pretty good, and he knows it, but he also knows I’m not that kind. Jack might’ve took off two months ago, but I don’t need anyone like Bob, a married man, for temporary fun and games.

“I like the taste of home-grown tomatoes,” I tell him. “Ones at the Safeway taste like wallpaper.”

“But nano won’t make tomatoes that taste processed,” he says in that way that men like to correct women. “That machinery will make the best tomatoes this town ever tasted.”

“Well, I hope you’re right.” Then Will and Kimee spilled their fight out through the screen door into the back yard, and Jackie started whimpering on his blanket, and I didn’t have no time for any nanomachinery.

 

Still, I was curious, so in the late afternoon, when it wasn’t quite so hot, I packed up the stroller and the kids and I went downtown.

Clifford Falls isn’t much of a town. We’re so far out on the plains that all we got is a single square ringed with dusty pick-ups and the teenagers’ scooters. There’s about two dozen stores, the little brick town hall with traffic court and Barry Anderson’s police room and such, the elementary school, Baptist and Methodist churches, Kate’s Lunchroom, and the Crow Bar. Down by the tracks is the grain elevator and warehouses. That’s about it. Once a movie was filmed here because the movie people wanted some place that looked like it might be fifty or sixty years ago.

Soon as I turned the corner I could see where the nanomachinery must be. People milled around the patch of faded grass in front of the town hall, people who probably should have still been to work on a Wednesday afternoon. A big awning stretched across the front of the building with a huge metal box under it, nearly big as my bedroom. To one side the mayor, who retired two years ago from the factory in Minneonta, stood on a crate right there in the broiling sun without so much as a hat on his bald head, making a speech.

“—greatest innovation since supercheap energy to raise our way of life to—”

“What’s getting made in that box?” I asked Emma Karlson. She had her twins in a fancy new stroller. Just after Jack left me, her Ted got taken on at the factory.

“A dais,” she said.

“A what?”

“A thing for the mayor to stand on instead of that apple crate. It’s supposed to be done in a few minutes.”

What a dumb thing to make—Mr. Johnson could just as well have gotten a good stepladder from Bickel’s Hardware. But I suppose the dais was by way of demonstration.

And I have to admit it was impressive when it come out of the box. Four men had to move it, a big fancy platform with a top like a gazebo and steps carved on their sides in fancy shapes. After the men set it down, there was this moment of electric silence, like a downed power line run through the crowd, and then everybody started shouting.

“Make me a rocking chair!”

“Tell it to grow a table!”

“I need a new rug for the dining room!”

“Make a good bottle of booze!”

Emma turned to me. Her eyes were big and shining. “Some people are so ignorant. That big nanomachine don’t make anything to eat or drink—the ones inside do that. Three little ones, for food and clothes and small quick stuff. Mayor Johnson already explained all that, but some people just can’t listen.”

The crowd was pressing closer to the new dais, and a few men started to climb the fancy steps. Kimee was getting restless, pulling on my hand, but Will said suddenly, “Mommy, tell the machine to make me a dog!”

Emma laughed. “It can’t do that, Will. Nobody but God can make a living thing.”

I said, “Then how can it make a tomato? A tomato’s living.”

Emma said, “No, it’s not. It’s dead after you pick it.”

“But it was living.”

Emma got that look in her eyes that I seen there ever since the third grade: Don’t argue with me because you’ll regret it. Will jumped up and down screaming, “A dog! A dog! I want a dog!” The people around the dais were pushed back by Barry Anderson and his deputy, but they didn’t stop shouting at Mayor Johnson. I grabbed Will, smiled hard at Emma, and started home.

Nanotech wasn’t going to put Kimee down for a nap or breast-feed Jackie. And it sure as hell wasn’t going to get my bastard husband back to help me do those things.

Not that I wanted him.

 

I waited for nano to make Clifford Falls look like the places in the TV shows. What surprised me was that it did.

I didn’t see anything for a few weeks because both Kimee and Will came down with some sort of bug. Diarrhea and cramps. The doctor I got on the computer told me which chemicals to squirt over samples of their shit and when I told him what colors the shit turned, he said it wasn’t serious but I should keep the kids in, make them drink a lot of water, and keep them away from the baby. In a two-bedroom rented house, that alone took a lot of my time. But we managed. Emma bought the medicine I needed at Merkelson’s and left it on the doorstep. She left three casseroles, too, and some chocolate-chip cookies.

Ten days later, when they were better, I baked Emma a sponge cake to thank her. After the kids were dressed and the stroller packed up, we went outside and I had to blink hard.

“Wow!” Will said. “Mommy, look at that!”

Parked in Bob McPhee’s driveway was the reddest car I ever seen, low and smooth and shiny. It looked fast. Will ran over to it and I called, “Don’t touch, Will!”

“Oh, he can’t hurt it,” Bob said with a sort of fake casualness. He was bursting with pride. “And if he did hurt it, I’ll just wait until my turn comes up on the Big Gray and order me another one.”

The Big Gray—that must be what they were calling the largest nanomachine. Stupid name. It sounded like a sway-backed horse.

Bob leered at me. “Wanna go for a ride, baby?”

“Why don’t you take your wife?” I said, but I smiled when I said it because I’m a wuss who likes to stay on good terms with my neighbors.

“Oh, I did,” Bob said, waving his hand airily, “but there’s always room for one more, if you know what I mean.”

“A ride! A ride!” Will shouted.

“Not today, Will, we’re gong to see Jon and Don.” That distracted him; Emma’s twins are his best friends.

Emma met me at the door dressed in a gorgeous yellow sundress with a low neck and full skirt. Emma was always pretty, even when we were thirteen, but I’d never seen her look like this. She’d done things to live up to the dress, fixed her hair and put on make-up and even had on rhinestone earrings.

“God, you look amazing!” I said, in my old jeans with baby puke on my T-shirt. Emma touched her earrings.

“Real diamonds, Carol! Ted used his second pick at the nanomachine to choose these!”

I gaped at her. The nanomachine could make real diamonds? Will barreled past me toward Don and Jon and I saw that all three of them jumped onto a new blue sofa covered with the nicest material I’d ever seen.

All I could think of to say was, “I brought you a sponge cake. A thank-you for all you done when the kids were sick.”

“Well, aren’t you the sweetest thing. Thank you. I’d offer you a piece now but, well, Kitty’ll be here in a few minutes to take the twins.”

Kitty Svenson was the teenager who babysat for everybody. She was saving up for secretarial school. Ted came out from the bedroom dressed in a bathrobe.

“Oh, God, Ted, have you got this diarrhea-thing, too? I’m sorry, it’s a bitch. Come on, Will, let’s go. Em, I can take the twins while Ted’s sick.”

“I’m not sick, Carol,” Ted said. Emma blushed. I was really confused. This was a Tuesday morning.

“I quit the factory,” Ted said. “No need to kill myself working now.”

“But . . . the mortgage. . . .”

“The nano’s making us a house,” Emma said proudly.

“A house? A whole house?”

“One part of a room at a time,” Ted said. “Em and I are both using all our picks for it. We’ll put it on that piece of land my daddy left me by the lake, and the whole house’ll finish just before the bank forecloses on this one. I got it all figured out.”

“But . . .” My brain wasn’t working right. I just couldn’t take it in, somehow.

“The food nano is making all our meals now,” Emma said. “Just churning ’em out like sausages. Here, Carol, taste this.” She darted into the kitchen, earrings swinging, and came back with a bowl of small round things like smooth nuts.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. But it tastes good. The food nano can’t make like, you know, real meats or anything, but it does pretty good delivering things that look and taste like fruits and veggies and bread, and this stuff is the protein.”

I picked up one of the round things and nibbled. It did taste good, sort of like cold spicy chicken. But something in me recoiled anyway. Maybe it was the texture, sort of bland and mushy. I palmed the rest of the ball. “Mmmmmmmmm.”

“Told you so,” Emma said triumphantly, like the round balls were things she’d baked herself. “Oh, here’s Kitty.”

Kitty Svenson hauled herself up the steps. Fat and acne-covered and dirt poor, she was the sweetest girl in town, and every time I saw her my heart ached. She liked Tom DeCarno, who lived down the street from me and was the starting quarterback on the football team at the consolidated high school in Remington. He’d notice Kitty on the day that Hell got a hockey franchise.

It was obvious what Emma in her sexy new dress and Tom in his bathrobe were going to be doing, so I dragged the protesting Will and we went home. I saw things I hadn’t noticed on the way to Em’s: a new playhouse in the backyard of the big house on the corner. Fresh chain-link fence around the Alghren place. The Connors’ pick-up in their driveway, which meant that Eddie hadn’t gone to work at the factory, either. Across the street, a woman I thought I didn’t know, dressed up like a city girl in a ruffled suit and high heels, until I realized it was Sue Merkelson, the pharmacist’s wife.

At home I took the kids into the backyard and weeded the tomatoes, which were nearly strangled with ten days’ worth of weeds. Jack used to do at least some of the weeding. But that was before, and this was now, and I kept at it until the job was done.

 

By late August the factory in Minneonta had closed. Most of the men in town who didn’t farm were out of work, but nobody seemed to mind much. The Crow Bar was full all the time, groups playing cards and laughing at TV. I saw them spilling out onto the street the one time I went to the supermarket to buy Pampers and milk.

Emma told me on the phone that Mayor Johnson, Barry Anderson, and Anderson’s deputy had the nanomachines on a regular schedule. Every morning people lined up to pick up whatever their food order’d been from the previous day, enough food for all that day’s meals plus a little over to store. Another machine made whatever clothes you picked out of a catalogue, in whatever size matched after you gave in your measurements. It made blankets and curtains and tablecloths, too, anything out of cloth. The last two machines, including the big one, turned out everything else, picked from a different catalogue, turn by turn.

The county’s corn, ready to harvest, sat in the fields. Nobody wanted to buy it, and except for the farm owners, nobody hired on to harvest it.

Nearly every family in town drove a new car, from six different models that our nanos were programmed to make. There was a lot of red and gold vehicles in our streets.

“I want a playhouse, Mommy,” Will whined. “Caddie Alghren gots a new playhouse! I want one, too!”

I looked at him, standing there in his rumpled little pajamas with trains on them, looking like his best friend just died. His hair fell over his forehead just like Jack’s used to do.

“How do you know Caddie’s got a new playhouse?”

“I saw it! From my window!”

“You can’t see into Caddie’s yard from your window. Did you climb out up onto the roof again, Will?”

He hung his head and twisted the sleeves of his pajamas into crumpled balls.

“I told you that going up on that roof is dangerous! You could fall and break your neck!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, raising his little face up to me, and I melted even though I knew he wasn’t sorry at all and would do it again. “I’m sorry, Mommy. Can’t we get a playhouse? We been inside all summer, feels like!”

He was right. I’d only taken the kids outside our yard a few times. I’d hardly been out myself. I told myself that it was because I didn’t want to see everybody’s pitying looks. (“Jack run off with that sexy girl from the hardware store, Chrissie Somebody, just left Carol and those kids without so much as a backward glance.”) But it wasn’t just that.

The big freezer downstairs was almost empty. I’d used up everything I could. I run out of Tide last Thursday and the laundry was piling up. Worse, the Pampers were nearly gone. I had to keep the checking account, the half of it that Jack left, to pay the rent and the phone as long as I could. After that . . . I didn’t know yet. Not yet.

So I guessed it was time. I didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go before, didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go now. But it was time.

“Okay, honey, we’ll get you a playhouse,” I said. “Find your sneakers.”

When I had Jackie changed and fed, Will and Kimee dressed, the stroller packed with diapers and water, we set off outside. Will was good, holding onto the side of the stroller and not running ahead. Kimee stood on the back bar and whimpered a little; she gets prickly heat in the summer. But when we turned the corner toward the town square, she stopped fussing and stared, just like me and Will. The whole place was full of garbage cans. Clean, blue, plastic garbage cans, hundreds of them, stacked and thrown and lying on their sides, not a single one of them holding any garbage. People milled around, talking angrily. I saw my neighbor.

“Bob, what on Earth—”

He was too angry even to leer at me. “That Beasor kid! The one that won the state technology contest a few years ago—that kid’s too smart-ass for his own good, I said so then! He hacked into the Big Gray somehow and now all it’ll make is garbage cans, no matter what you tell it!”

I craned my neck to see the big metal box under its awning. Sure enough, another garbage can popped out. A bubble of something started in my belly and started to rise up in me. “Is . . . is . . .”

“The kid left town! Anderson’s got an APB out on him. You haven’t seen Danny Beasor, have you, Carol?”

“I haven’t seen anybody,” I said. The bubble rose higher and now I knew what it was: laughter. I turned my face away from Bob.

“If that kid knows what’s good for him, he’ll keep on running,” Bob said. He was really upset. “Now the mayor’s shut down the other nanomachines, except the food one, until the repair guys get out here from the city. You get your food today, Carol?”

“No, but I’ll come back later,” I managed to say, without laughing in Bob’s face. “K-Kimee’s not feeling well.”

“Okay,” he said, not really interested. “Hey, Earl! Wait!” He pushed through the garbage cans toward Earl Bickel across the square.

Will somehow understood that there would be no playhouse today. He screwed up his face, but before he could start to howl, I said, “Will! Look at all these great cans! We can make the best playhouse ever out of them!”

His face cleared. “Cool!”

So we nested and dragged home four garbage cans, with a little help from the teenage Parker boys, who are nice kids and who seemed glad to have something to do. They found some boards in the basement, plus a hammer and nails, and spent all afternoon making a playhouse with four garbage-can rooms. Will was in seventh heaven. I couldn’t pay them, but I unfroze and toasted the last of my home-made banana bread, and they gobbled it down happily. Will and Kimee, her itching forgotten, played in the garbage cans until dark.

The next day all the nanomachines were working again, and I put in a daily food order. But I left the kids at home with Kitty Svenson when I picked up my order, and I started canning all the squash, beans, peppers, corn, and melons in the garden.

 

School opened. Will was in first grade. I walked him there the first day and he seemed to like his teacher.

By the third week of school, she’d quit.

By the fifth week, so had the teacher who replaced her, along with a few other faculty.

“They just don’t want to work when they don’t have to, and why should they?” Emma said. She sat in my kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee and wearing a strange hat that sloped down to cover half her face. I suppose she picked it out of the nano-catalogues—it must be what they were wearing in the city. The color was pretty, though, a warm peach. It was practically the first morning she’d made time for me in weeks. “With nano, nobody has to work if they don’t want to.”

“Did the twins’ teacher quit, too?”

“No. It’s old Mrs. Cameron. She’s been teaching so long she probably can’t even imagine doing anything else after she gets up in the morning. Carol, look at this place. How come you let it get so shabby?”

I said mildly, “There isn’t too much money since Jack left. Just enough for the rent.”

“That asshole . . . but that’s not what I meant and you know it. Why haven’t you replaced those old curtains and sofa with nano ones? And that TV! You could get a real big one, with an unbelievable picture.”

I put my elbows on the table and leaned toward her. “I’ll tell you the truth, Em: I don’t know. I get nano food and diapers, and I got some school clothes for Will, but anything else . . . I don’t know.”

“You’re just being an idiot!” she said. She almost shouted it—way too angry for just my saggy sofa. I reached out and pulled off the sloping hat. Emma’s eye was swollen nearly shut, and every color of squash in my garden.

All at once she started sobbing. “Ted . . . he never done anything like that before . . . it’s terrible on men, being laid off ! They get so bored and mad—”

“He wasn’t laid off, he quit,” I said, but gently.

“Same thing! He just scowls himself around the house, yells at the kids—they’re glad to be back in school, let me tell you!—and criticizes everything I do, or he orders Scotch from the nano—did order it until Mayor Johnson outlawed any nano liquor and—”

“He did? The mayor did?” I said, startled.

“Yeah. And so last Thursday, Ted and I had this big fight, and . . . and . . .” Suddenly she changed tone. “You don’t know anything, Carol! You sit here safe and alone, thinking you’re so superior to nano, just like you always acted so superior to poor Jack—oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that!”

“Probably you did,” I said evenly, “but it’s all right. Really it is, Em.”

All at once she got defiant. “You’re thinking I’m just dumping on you because Ted hit me. Well, I’m not. It was only that once, most of the time he’s a good husband. Our new house by the lake will be done in a few more weeks and then everything’ll be better!”

I didn’t see how, but all I said was, “I’ll bet the house is pretty.”

“It’s gorgeous! It’s got a blue-brick fireplace in the living room—blue bricks! And it’s equipped with just everything, all those robo-appliances like you see on TV—I won’t have to do hardly anything!”

“I can’t wait to see it,” I said.

“You’ll love it,” she said, put her hat back on so it covered her eye, and stared at me with triumph and fear…

 

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"Nano Comes to Clifford Falls" by Nancy Kress, copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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