2BR02B – Intermediate Level
Everything was perfectly fine in the world.
There were no poor people, no slums, no prisons, no wars.
Nobody was mad or disabled, and all diseases could be prevented. So could old age.
Death, other than by accident, was an adventure for people who wanted to try it.
The population of the United States was kept at forty million people.
One bright morning in the Chicago Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.
Wehling was fifty-six, a young man in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.
X-rays had shown that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.
Young Wehling sat forward in his chair, his head in his hands. He was so untidy, so still and colorless as to be almost invisible. He fitted in perfectly, since the waiting room also looked messy and depressing. The furniture had been moved away from the walls, and there were large sheets of cloth covered in paint drops all over the floor.
The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had agreed to let himself die.
An old man, about two hundred years old, stood on a ladder. He was painting a picture on the wall, and you could see from his expression that he did not like what he was doing. Back in the days when people aged in a way that could be seen, people would have guessed that he was thirty-five or so. Aging had touched him that much before the cure for aging was found.
The picture he was working on was of a very neat garden.
Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned over the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed insects, spread fertilizer. Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, picked up leaves, carried them all away.
Never, never, never — not even in ancient Holland or Japan — had a garden been better designed and looked after. Every plant had all the soil, light, water, air and food it could use.
A hospital worker came down the corridor, singing a popular song under his breath. The worker looked in at the picture and the painter. “Looks so real,” he said. “I can almost imagine I’m standing in the middle of it.”
“What makes you think you’re not in it?” said the painter. “It’s called The Happy Garden of Life,” he added with a look that suggested he did not really believe it.
“That’s a good painting of Dr Hitz,” said the worker.
He was referring to one of the male figures in white. The face was that of Dr Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician. Hitz was a very handsome man.
“Lot of faces still to fill in,” said the worker. He meant that the faces of many of the figures in the picture hadn’t yet been painted. They were to be filled in with the faces of important people on either the hospital staff or from the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Termination.
“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the worker.
The painter’s face changed. “You think I’m proud of this ugly mess?” he said angrily. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”
“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” said the worker.
The painter pointed to a piece of cloth on the floor that was covered in drops of paint. “There’s a good picture of it,” he said. “Keep that, and you’ll have a picture a lot more honest than this one.”
“That’s a very depressing view of life, old man.” said the worker.
“Is that a crime?” said the painter.
“If you don’t like it here, Grandpa…” the worker said, and he finished the thought with the trick telephone number that people who didn’t want to live any more were supposed to call. The zero in the telephone number was spoken as “naught.”
The number was: “2 B R 0 2 B.”
“To be or not to be” was the telephone number of the city gas-chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination. Some people unkindly called it by other names such as “Automat,” “Birdland,” “Cannery,” “Catbox,” “De-louser,” “Easy-go,” “Good-by, Mother,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Kiss-me-quick,” “Lucky Pierre,” “Sheepdip,” “Waring Blendor,” “Weep-no-more” and “Why Worry?”
“When I decide it’s time to go,” the painter laughed, “it won’t be at the Catbox.”
“You are one of those who want to do it themselves, eh?” said the worker. “Messy business, Grandpa. Why don’t you have a little consideration for the people who have to clean up after you?”
With a series of rude words, the painter said that he was not concerned about the troubles of his survivors. “The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me,” he added.
The worker laughed and moved on.
Wehling, the waiting father, said something to himself without raising his head. And then he fell silent again.
An ugly, powerful looking woman walked quickly into the waiting room. Her shoes, stockings, coat, bag and cap were all purple. The words written on her purple bag showed that she was from the Federal Bureau of Termination.
The woman had a lot of hair on her face. A real mustache, in fact. A strange thing about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how lovely and womanly they were when they joined, they all grew mustaches within five years or so.
“Is this where I’m supposed to come?” she said to the painter.
“A lot would depend on what your business was,” he said. “You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”
“They told me I was to come here so someone could paint my picture,” she said. “My name’s Leora Duncan. That sure is a beautiful painting. It looks just like heaven or something.”
“Or something,” said the painter. He took a list of names from his shirt pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,” he said, looking down the list. “Yes. Here you are. You’re one of those to be remembered forever. See any bodies without faces yet that you’d like me to stick your head on? We’ve got a few good ones left.”
She studied the painting with an unpleasant look on her face. “They’re all the same to me,” she said. I don’t know anything about art.”
“A body’s a body, eh?” he said, “All right. As a master of fine art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated a figure of a woman who was carrying dead plants to a fire.
“Well,” said Leora Duncan, “that’s more the disposal people, isn’t it? I mean, I’m in service. I don’t do any disposing.”
The painter clapped his hands as if he thought this was very clever. “You say you don’t know anything about art, and then you prove in the next breath that you know more about it than I do! Of course the one carrying dead plants is wrong for a hostess! Someone who cuts away the dead wood – that’s more your line.” He pointed to a figure in purple who was cutting a dead branch from an apple tree. “How about her?” he said. “You like her at all?”
Leora Duncan’s face turned red. “Gosh! That puts me right next to Dr Hitz,” she said shyly.
“That upsets you?” he said.
“Oh no!” she said. “It’s… it’s just such an honor.”
“Ah, you think highly of him, eh?” he said.
“Who doesn’t think highly of him?” she said, looking lovingly at the figure of Hitz. It was of a healthy looking, white-haired, all knowing Greek god. “Who doesn’t think highly of him?” she said again. “He was responsible for setting up the very first gas-chamber in Chicago.”
“Nothing would please me more,” said the painter, “than to put you next to him for all time. Cutting off a branch. Does that strike you as appropriate?”
“That is kind of like what I do,” she said. She did not like talking about what she did. What she did was make people comfortable while she killed them.
Leora Duncan stood still as her face was painted into the picture. As she did this, Dr Hitz himself came into the waiting room. He was seven feet tall and seemed full of importance, success, and the joy of living.
“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What are you doing here?” he said. “This isn’t where the people leave. This is where they come in!”
“We’re going to be in the same picture together,” she said shyly.
“Good!” said Dr Hitz in a voice that showed he meant it. “And, say, isn’t that some picture?”
“I sure am honored to be in it with you,” she said.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “I’m honored to be in it with you. Without women like you, this wonderful world we’ve got wouldn’t be possible.”
He moved toward the door that led to the rooms where babies were born. “Guess what was just born,” he said.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Triplets!” he said.
“Triplets!” she said. She was thinking about the law said that no baby could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would agree to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, called for three people to die.
“Do the parents have three prepared to die?” said Leora Duncan.
“Last I heard,” said Dr Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to find two more.”
“I don’t think they made it,” she said. “Nobody has made three appointments with us. Nothing but singles going through today, unless somebody called in after I left. What’s the name?”
“Wehling,” said the waiting father, sitting up in his chair. His eyes were red and he looked very sleepy. “Edward K. Wehling, Jr., is the name of the happy father.”
He raised his right hand, looking at a spot on the wall across the room from where he was sitting, and gave a sad laugh. “Here,” he said.
“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr Hitz, “I didn’t see you.”
“The invisible man,” said Wehling.
“They just phoned to tell me that your triplets have been born,” said Dr Hitz. “They’re all fine, and so is the mother. I’m on my way in to see them now.”
“Wonderful,” said Wehling with no feeling.
“You don’t sound very happy,” said Dr Hitz.
“What man in my shoes wouldn’t be happy?” said Wehling. He made a sign with his hands to show that everything was fine. “All I have to do is pick out which one of the three babies is going to live. Then I just have to deliver my mother’s father to the Easy Go, and come back here with a receipt.”
Dr Hitz looked seriously at Wehling. He walked closer and towered over him. “You don’t believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?” he said.
“I think it’s perfectly fine,” said Wehling in a way that showed it wasn’t really what he thought.
“Would you like to go back to the good old days?” said Dr Hitz. “The population of the Earth was twenty billion, about to become forty billion, then eighty billion, then one hundred and sixty billion. Without population control, human beings would now be packed on the surface of this old planet like grains of sand on the beach! Think of it!”
Wehling said nothing and kept staring at the same spot on the wall.
“In the year 2000,” continued Dr Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and laid down the law, there wasn’t even enough drinking water to go around. There was nothing to eat but seaweed, and still people demanded the right to have as many children as they wanted. And their right, if possible, to live forever.”
“I want those kids,” said Wehling quietly. “I want all three of them.”
“Of course you do,” said Dr Hitz. “That’s only human.”
“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,” said Wehling.
“Nobody’s really happy about taking a close relative to the Catbox,” said Dr Hitz in a gentle voice.
“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,” said Leora Duncan.
“What?” said Dr Hitz.
“I wish people wouldn’t call it ‘the Catbox,’ and things like that,” she said. “It gives people the wrong idea.”
“You’re absolutely right,” said Dr Hitz. “Forgive me.” He corrected himself and gave the city gas-chambers their official title which no one ever used in conversation. “I should have said, ‘Ethical Suicide Studios,'” he said.
“That sounds so much better,” said Leora Duncan.
“This child of yours, whichever one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control. In a garden like that picture there.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, the world was a hell that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now, centuries of peace and having all of our needs met stretch before us as far as the imagination cares to travel.”
He smiled brightly.
The smile disappeared as he saw that Wehling had just pulled out a gun.
Wehling shot Dr Hitz dead. “There’s room for one — a great big one,” he said.
And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Room for two.”
And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.
Nobody came running. Nobody seemed to have heard the shots.
The painter stood on the top of his ladder, looking down and thinking about the sorry scene.
The painter thought about the sad puzzle of life. People demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be have children. Then, once having children, demanding to live as long as possible. To do all that on a very small planet that they expected to last forever.
All the answers that the painter could think of were terrible. Even more terrible, surely, than a Catbox, an Easy Go. He thought of war. He thought of disease. He thought of people dying because they did not have enough to eat.
He knew that he would never paint again. He let his paint-brush fall to the cloth below. And then he decided he also had had enough of living in the Happy Garden of Life. He came slowly down from the ladder.
He picked up Wehling’s gun, planning to shoot himself.
But he wasn’t brave enough.
And then he saw a telephone in the corner of the room. He went to it and called the number he knew only too well: “2 B R 0 2 B.”
“Federal Bureau of Termination,” said the very warm voice at the other end.
“How soon could I get an appointment?” he asked.
“We could probably fit you in late this afternoon, sir,” she said. “It might even be earlier, if someone changes their mind.”
“All right,” said the painter, “fit me in, if you please.” And he gave her his name, spelling it out.
“Thank you, sir,” said the woman. “Your city thanks you. Your country thanks you. Your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from those who will be born after you are gone.”