BENNY'S MISSION
A Novel

(Chapter 2, 5 Pages in Typescript)
 
 
 
 
TWO                        
 

                Such a curious impasse had things come to—some said it was the absolute and final end, others the grand, great, glorious beginning—that Benny Wise found nothing unnatural about being asked to do organizing along radical lines in a geriatrics ward.
                "We're giving you the most important hospital in the city, " Scot Frey had said in his seedy little withment on the South Side. "This is an important assignment, Benny, a very important assignment. We need someone we can count on out there at Really Hospital, someone with good organizational ability and good people skills, above all, someone who can take the heat. You're going to have your work cut out for you, I promise you that. But I think you'll find that you get plenty of positive reinforcement, and good feedback. Why do I think that? Because these people are boiling over with resentment, they've begun to see the light, they're starting to get together. They're starting to pool their resources and take action. Make no mistake, Benny, the people you'll be dealing with are some of the most explosive and volatile you could imagine."
                A suffocating heat was afflicting the city that summer, and the fact that Scot had not opened his windows, or even raised his shades, made his withment all the hotter.
                "Oh, I know that they call them beached whales," he went on, "Class Twos and DNRs, for do not resuscitate. I know the surgeons refer to them as Gomers—get-outta-my-emergency-room—because there s nothing they can do for them, or they think there's nothing they can do for them. But when you get to know these folks, Benny, really get to know them, you're going to find you're staring into a veritable tinderbox, a hotbed of rebellion."
                The posters on his walls had told Benny, with the urgency of billboards, where Scot stood on just about everything. Don't Buy This, Boycott That, Reelect This One, Get Rid of That One, Support the March, the Demonstration, the Protest—For, Against, In Favor Of —To Stop, To Change, To Rectify. Scot was obviously a man of strong convictions, and though he was only an out-of-work printer's devil with whom Benny had struck up a conversation while standing in an unemployment line, he had been impressed with Scot's piercing sense of purpose, his air of decisiveness and certainty.
                "I have some information here that's going to be helpful to you," Scot said, getting down on the floor and rifling among some papers and file folders. Benny contemplated the movie- and music-star posters that also dotted the walls, and noticed that the familiar faces were staring down even from the ceiling like benign and reassuring angels. There had been something definitely shrinelike about Scot's quarters, something that smacked of the grotto, or cave; if the icons hadn't actually had candles in front of them, they might as well have been painted in oils and framed in gilt, with little lights at the bottom. But given the age of Scot's tenement (it occurred to him), the posters might have been deployed simply to cover cracks.
                "Don't pay any attention to these lesser causes," Scot said, returning to his feet. "Not a one of them matters. They're all obsolete, superseded, canceled. This—the revolution I'm talking about—is the real revolution, this is the revolution to end all revolutions. And don't believe the official disclaimers that are coming out of Washington. There's plenty of substance to the rumors. Believe me, we have plenty of proof. It's just that those geldings at the Polygon, those whizz kids and pinstripers running around the White House, know they have a bull by the tail and are afraid of what will happen if people get wind of it. They have no faith in people, common, ordinary people, and their ability to pool their resources, to come together and work for a higher purpose. They think the economy can't handle it, and they're especially afraid of the old folks—for obvious reasons. No doubt about it, Benny, we're on the verge either of utopia or oblivion, we're going to have either a new age, or mass destruction. The time to act is now. And the movement needs you at Really."
                Benny took a deep breath and tried to control the pounding in his heart.
                "What is it, exactly, you want me to do?" he said.
                "I'm not going to mince words," Scot replied. "It would be an insult to you as well as to me, at a time like this, if I were to mince words. What we want you to do is this. We want you go out to Really Hospital and get to know the folks—infiltrate the place, so to speak. When you feel comfortable there, we want you to begin stirring things up, roiling the waters, fanning the flames of resentment. We want you to nourish the anger that lies just beneath the surface, we want you to let it be known that old-timers are aware of their rights, and are not going to take it lying down. "
                "And if I, uh, meet with resistance?"
                "Well, if you meet with resistance—and I don't think you will—we‚≤• going to ask you to do the very thing they'd least expect: We're going to ask you to raise the ante. We're going to ask you to draw up a list of demands, we're going to ask you to get the patients to make nuisances of themselves, to begin disrupting the normal hospital routine. We're going to ask you to bring in people from the media, to hold press conferences, to do whatever you have to do. Because that's going to be your mission, Benny, to shout it from the rooftops, to tell the world."
                "Well, I've been trying to organize and shape the world all my life," Benny said, suddenly flushed, "so to me this doesn't sound like anything new. I've had my share of kicking and scraping, and poking at the world—and taking my licks while doing so. And although my efforts have never come out of the mold exactly the way I intended them to when they went in, I can honestly say that even during my darkest hours, my moments of greatest trial and tribulation, my moments of torment and self-doubt—"
                Scot didn't wait for the end of his answer but got up again and went into the kitchen and began rooting around among some papers on a piece of plywood mounted on an old-fashioned bathtub so as to make a table. Well, there you are, Benny thought. They had had their housing crisis, and their housing movement, and their housing reform, they had tried to foster community by calling apartments withments, and still, when all was said and done, there were those who came out of it with their bathtubs in their bathrooms, and those with their bathtubs in their kitchens.
                "What do you do with all this stuff when you want to take a bath?" he called through a window that separated the two rooms.
                But Scot was absorbed in his work, and didn't hear him.
                "Here's some more material that I think will be useful to you," he said, returning to the center of the ruins. "A statement of goals and purposes. Some background information on the people you'll be dealing with. Some charts and statistics. I doubt it's everything you'll need—I'll be giving you more material as we proceed—but it should be enough to get you started."
                Catching himself, he had looked at Benny solemnly. "We're counting on you," he said. "This is not an assignment we would have given to just anyone. It takes a very special person, and we happen to believe that that special person is you. Now don't let us down."
                Scot put the material in a battered manila envelope and handed it to Benny, then put his arm around his shoulder and walked him to the door.
                "We're counting on you," he repeated, "and we know you can do it. Now go out there and get busy."
                They clasped hands in the way that was fashionable at the moment, and Benny, flushed with excitement and eager to get going, hurried across the landing and down the rickety stairs.
                As he passed the vacant lot next door (where a sign said "Under Renovation"), he stepped on a board the other end of which—nail-studded—catapulted up so close to his head he practically killed himself.

 
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