"A few days or a few years" into the future, an ordinary Brooklyn family is going about the business of living. Pinky longs for a second child, but her husband, Arthur, broods unceasingly about the sorrows of the planet and feels it needs fewer people on board, not more. They are both seeking happiness in their own way-as are the novel's other indelibly drawn characters, from catastrophe-minded seven-year-old Teddy and Oedipus the family cat to Pinky's abrasive forensic psychologist friend, Fran. It is the discovery of a perfectly happy abandoned baby in their garden, and then his disappearance, that changes all their lives. The Happiness Code is at once a romance, a mystery, and a fairy tale-laced with hard questions about destiny and its new challenger, biotechnology.
Author Biography: Amy Herrick, author of At the Sign of the Naked Waiter, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, TriQuarterly, and Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards.
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1. The Jelly Jar
Pinky wanted another baby.
Not that she hadn't thoroughly enjoyed herself the first time around, but it had been like having her ship stormed and looted and set on fire in the night. Now that she knew what to expect, she wanted the chance to really drink it all in. She wanted to smell the smells slowly-the milky and the foul and the freshly shampooed. She wanted to lean over the cradle and savor the entire concert-the howls and the squawks and the neighs, the caroling vowels and the precise stuttering moment when the consonants made their entrance. She wanted to kiss, again, the buttery plump little belly. She wanted to watch with exacting adoration as the baby unfolded like one of those flowers in a speeded-up film, opening week by week from a helpless nobody in particular to someone upright and astonishing and unlike anyone else in the nearby universe.
Just like Teddy had.
Now, no one should imagine that she wasn't still mad for her firstborn, that she wasn't still dazzled by the curve of his sleeping cheek, the feel of his warm sticky hand in hers, or by the questions he asked her: "How long would it take you to die if you got locked in a refrigerator?" "If I stuck my finger under Niagara Falls, would it get ripped off?" "What do you think would happen if the fire on the sun went out for just two minutes and then came back on?"
No, she loved his questions and everything else about him. She loved the things she found in his pockets, the pebbles and feathers, the unclaimed keys he collected for his key collection, the little carcasses of dead insects, the wine corks and the washers and the ball bearings, the discarded vitamin bottles he found in the trash and filled with his own perfumes and other potions, the lint-covered Chiclets and the adjustable rings with bright-colored stones. Once, the eyeball of a trout, given to him, as he explained, by the man in the fish store.
She loved the way he undertook each new project or game with an expression of utmost seriousness, as if he were preparing to do heart surgery, or the way he sat at their eighteenth-floor window, scanning the skies with narrowed gaze, watching for fighter planes or hurricanes.
She trembled with tenderness for him. He was as dear to her as air and light. But he was the second reason she wanted a second child. For, if there was anybody who needed a sidekick, it was surely Teddy. It had become clear to her in the last year or so that there was something too singular and sober about him. He needed somebody who would give him a different angle to see from, a youthful companion, ready to instruct and be instructed, who could lighten things up a little. Somebody on friendly terms with the absurd, who would blow spit bubbles and would think it was hilarious if you hid your face behind your hands and then showed up again.
Somebody who would knock his towers down.
Obviously, this wouldn't do Arthur any harm, either.
The problem, of course, was Arthur himself.
Arthur hadn't wanted children in the first place. In his opinion, earth was no longer a good place for bringing new people on board and probably never would be again. But popular sentiment, most especially Pinky's, had been against him. He had let his guard down and he had lost the first round. This did not mean, however, that he intended to agree to a second child. He had not only opinions on this score, but convictions. He took the responsibility of becoming a father for the grave matter that it was, and to his surprise he realized that, given the opportunity to undo the original mistake that had led him here, he wouldn't choose to undo it. But any idiot could see that if there was any hope to be salvaged for this planet at all, what was needed was fewer human beings, not more of them. For a couple to produce a single child was one thing; two children were unconscionable.
For a year or more, Arthur had held out quite successfully against Pinky's campaign. Then Marina, a colleague at work, came to him with a most unusual request and he found himself on the horns of a dilemma.
She and Arthur had been working together for two years in the bioengineering department, where Marina was the lab assistant on Ken Fishhammer's HDR Deficiency Project and Arthur was a database administrator. She was not particularly talkative, but she had imparted at least the facts of her history to him, how she had escaped a certain highly destabilized Eastern European country after she had been forced to watch her family home burned to the ground with her parents barred inside. Her parents had been dissidents and intellectuals, and she had been a medical student at the time when this had happened. It had been through her father's academic connections at the university and to Ken Fishhammer in particular that she had gotten this position. She had brought her younger sister Katya with her and Katya was now a student at the university.
Arthur was pretty sure from the flatness in her delivery of these facts that there was more here than she was telling. And she may have owed Ken Fishhammer a debt, but he didn't think she liked him much. Not any more than Arthur did. Arthur admired Marina's reticence and her self-containment, was deeply respectful of all that she had endured, and had no wish to know more of her hidden thoughts. As far as he was concerned, she was the perfect work partner for him and they had formed an efficient alliance, keeping Ken's demands in check and easily completing their tasks on schedule.
It had come to Arthur as a great surprise when she made her request.
But being Arthur, he did not pry. He did not ask her, Why now? Or, Why me? Or, How would you manage?
It wasn't merely because of his lack of interest in the personal (something Pinky always complained about), but was more because there was something both pleading and forbidding in the way that Marina stood there.
So he said he'd think it over and he went home and he did. He thought again about what Marina had done and what she had lost and about what had happened to her face.
In the end, he decided to give her what she sought because, although on one hand it compromised one of his most sacred principles, on the other hand he saw it as an opportunity to make his own small repayment to the common human debt.
The next morning he went downstairs to the lab, where he knew he would find her tending to the test subjects. If she had chosen at that moment to explain to him how much she loved these mice and about the inspiration they had given her and about what she planned to do with Arthur's gift, he almost certainly would have changed his mind. But she said nothing, so he handed her the small jar. The label had been left on and one could see that it had once held strawberry jelly. But it had been carefully washed and rinsed out, and there, on the bottom, was a couple of tablespoons of what she needed.
She held it in her hand wonderingly. What was inside added no more perceptible weight than a thimbleful of snow, a mouse's heart, a single fallen leaf. Partly because he had one of his headaches, which gave him the peculiar and unsettling sensation of pulling up to an intersection and hearing a fire engine approach from a direction he could not determine, and partly because he saw her blush, Arthur nodded and backed out of the room.
Marina's father had always said, to your destiny there is only one bus. You must arrive at the corner on time. So she stayed at the lab that evening until everyone had gone home and then slipped into the refrigerator room, where she turned off the switch on the light sensor. She crossed the room softly in the dark and opened the refrigerator door. The neatly arranged trays of culture dishes glistened up at her from the cold interior. A container of yogurt, an unopened can of Coke, and a small green plum perched uneasily on the top shelf as if trying not to rub shoulders with any of the silently gleaming army of little dishes placed beside them.
She reached into the back, where she knew that Ken Fishhammer stored the second set of chromosome vectors, his secret ones, and she searched blindly with her hand for a good pick, for a lucky choice, for the tiny arrow that would fly straight. It wasn't for herself, really, that she searched, but for the others, her parents and her sister and the rest, wishing to grab for them a little happiness in compensation for all their suffering. At that moment she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. Her hand closed upon one of the little dishes. She slipped it into her bag and stepped behind the door where she hoped she would not be seen.
In a moment, through the little window in the door, she saw Ken Fishhammer go by and the light flick on automatically as he entered the room across the hall where the mouse cages were kept. He looked distracted and determined, as if he were searching for something he had lost, and was muttering angrily to himself.
Just then, one of the Vector Two mice began to "sing" and Marina was filled with a terrible foreboding. She knew Ken did not like it when they did this.
They "sang" every day after the sun had set. For most of the afternoon these mice would leap and tumble and jump over each other with great delight. Then suddenly they would throw themselves down around the floor of their cages and look at each other and their small world with oddly alert and joyful expressions and one of them would begin chittering and cheeping away, a complicated tuneless aria. It wasn't always the same mouse who sang, but the song, she was sure, was always joyful. And Ken, she knew, was for some reason much irritated by this singing. A great mystery. Wasn't this one of the behaviors he had worked for so secretly and so hard?
She only hoped that he would quickly find whatever it was he was looking for and leave.
The little mouse continued to squeak rapturously.
"Oh, for God's sakes, shut up," she heard Ken say, and then there was the sound of the latch being released and the door creaking open. The mouse's song stopped abruptly. He must have been frightened by Fishhammer, she thought.
The cage door clicked shut.
She heard Fishhammer cross the room and stop and then move some things around.
"Where the hell are they?" he muttered. He paused and then headed toward the door.
She could hear a great rush inside her own ears, and for a second she thought it was the guilt of her conscience come to drown her like the ocean inside a seashell, but then she realized it was only the adrenaline signaling her heart to pump faster in case he should find her and she should need to move quickly.
She calmed herself and her pulse grew quieter. In a moment she heard him give a little grunt of triumph and then she heard the jingling of keys as he hurried back out the door and down the hallway.
After waiting a few moments to be safe, she crossed quietly over to the mouse room and checked the cages.
In most of them the mice were settling down for the night, burrowing into their wood shavings, but in one cage she noticed that all the mice seemed to be huddled busily around something. When she looked more closely, she saw that they were eating, with great gusto and pleasure, one of their companions, who lay at an odd angle in their midst as if its neck had been broken. The noise they made as they ate was not mouselike, nor human, nor funerallike, either, but made her think of the hum of telephone wires or the sound of light traveling through the dark spaces between the stars.
She stared at this scene with horror for a moment and thought of taking the poor mouse from them, but did not. Loaded as she was with so many black and bloody memories that could never be laid down, she swung her canvas bag over her shoulder and headed out into the night. The snow had stopped and the sky had cleared. The stars looked down upon her, bright, she thought, with approval.
from The Happiness Code: A Novel by Amy Herrick, Copyright © 2003 Amy Herrick, published by Viking Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book confused me. An unhappyman and his wife live with theiryoung son. The wife wants anotherchild. The man refuses to allowthe wife to have another child,but he has a child with hisresearch co-worker. The baby isgiven a happiness gene. The babynever cries, not even when heis severely cut or stung by a wasp.But what is this story about? Whatwas the author trying to say?And what did the ending mean?I have no idea.
I enjoyed reading this book. Happiness really can be simple. I really connected with the main characters as Pinky was whimsical like me and Arthur logical like my husband. Sometimes it made me laugh out loud...that is always a good thing.
This book had me so in its grasp that I couldn't put it down. The story drew me along and the characters were interesting and fun. I enjoyed the mix of realism with slight bits of the fantastical. The setting of my hometown Brooklyn made for even more of a connection.
This book was really fun to read. I read a lot on the subway and I often found myself bursting out with a big silly grin while reading this book. That is a good way to have my fellow commuters give me some space. I took a lot away from this book also. I look at clouds from a whole perspective. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun entertaining read.