2BR02B – Pre-Intermediate Level
Everything was good in the world.
There were no poor people, no poor neighbourhoods, no prisons, no wars.
Nobody was mad or born with anything wrong with them. No one died from disease or old age.
Death, other than by accident, was experienced only by those 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 waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born any more.
Wehling was fifty-six, a young man in a population in which most people were over one hundred.
X-rays had shown that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.
Young Wehling was sitting with his head in his hands. His clothes were messy, and he was so still and colorless as to be almost impossible to see. He fitted in well, since the waiting room was also 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 painted. It was being painted in honor of 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. You could see from his face 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. That was how old he was when the cure for aging had been found.
The picture he was working on was of a beautiful garden in which everything appeared to be as it should.
There were men and women in white uniforms, doctors and nurses. They turned over the soil, added plant food, planted seedlings, killed insects. There were also men and women in purple uniforms. They pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, picked up leaves, carried them all away.
There had never been a garden been better designed and looked after. Every plant had all the soil, light, water, air and food that it could use.
A hospital worker came into the room, singing softly to himself. He looked at the picture and then at the painter. “It looks so real,” he said. “I can almost see myself 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 talking about one of the people in white. The face was that of Dr Benjamin Hitz, a very handsome man. His job at the hospital was to help women who were there to have babies.
“Lot of faces still to fill in,” said the worker. He meant that the faces of many of the people 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.
“It must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the worker.
The painter’s face changed. “Do you think I’m happy with this ugly mess?” he said angrily. “Do you think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”
“What is 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 against the law?” 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 told 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.”
“So you are one of those who want to do it themselves!” said the worker. “Messy business, Grandpa. Why don’t you think a little about the people who have to clean up after you?”
With a number of rude words, the painter said that he did not care about the troubles of those who would be living after he was gone. “The world would be a better place with a lot more mess, if you ask me,” he added.
The worker laughed and moved on.
Wehling, the waiting father, said something to himself without lifting his head. Then he was quiet 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. This was something that always happened to gas-chamber hostesses. No matter how lovely and womanly they were when they started, they all grew mustaches in the first five years or so.
“Is this where I have to come?” she said to the painter.
“Only if you have business here,” 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 on the list of those to be remembered for all time. 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 great artist, I suggest this body here.” He pointed to a painting 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 a hostess. I don’t do any disposing.”
The painter put his hands together as if he thought this was very clever. “You say you don’t know anything about art, and then the next moment you show that you know more about it than me! 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 woman in purple who was cutting a dead branch from an apple tree. “How about her?” he said. “Do you like her at all?”
Leora Duncan’s face turned red. “Gosh! That puts me right next to Dr Hitz,” she said shyly.
“And you are unhappy with that?” 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 painting 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 the doctor who set up 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. What do you think about that?”
“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 relaxed 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 happiness with his life.
“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said. ” What are you doing here? This isn’t where the people leave. This is where they come in,” he added, trying to be funny.
“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 what that meant under the law. No baby was allowed to live unless the parents of the child could find someone who would agree to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, meant that three people had to die.
“Do the parents have three prepared to go?” 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 is the name of the happy father.”
He lifted his right hand, looking at 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.”
“No one can,” 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 take my mother’s father to the Easy Go, and come back here with the papers to show that he has gone.”
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 just great,” 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, there would be so many people on this old planet that we wouldn’t be able to move! Think of it!”
Wehling said nothing and kept looking at the same place on the wall across the room.
“In the year 2000,” continued Dr Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and told the government what they had to do, 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 never die.”
“I want those children,” 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 family member to the Catbox,” said Dr Hitz in a soft 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 right, of course” said Dr Hitz. “I’m sorry.” He called the city gas-chambers by their correct name, which no one ever used any more.
“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. Two hundred years ago, when I was a young man, the world was a terrible place that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now, it will go on in peace for hundreds of years with people having all of their needs met.”
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 what had happened.
The painter thought about the sad state of life on Earth. 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 be able to live on for all time.
The world that the painter was thinking of was 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.”