BENNY'S MISSION
A Novel

(Chapter 3, 7 Pages in Typescript)
 
 
 
 
THREE                        
 
                Because it sits like a lonely meatball in a veritable spaghetti of expressways that have been built out over the city's lakes and rivers, and in some cases right down to the harbor, there are people who have lived their entire lives in Eccentric City without realizing that the Dwight D. Really Memorial Hospital occupies an island. From a distance, the subtle pointing up of the skeleton in the building & overall design often provokes curiosity whether its construction has been completed; the rows and rows of bold square windows, and the extreme elevation of the highways surrounding them, make it possible when passing by on one side of the building to see the cars racing along on the other—and, of course, the various people within.
                On the stultifyingly hot day in July when Benny first drove out to the hospital (or as he would later think of it, made his first pilgrimage there), the sound of jackhammers was all-encompassing, and waves of heat shimmered off the streets and pavements. After hesitating for a moment because the exit was poorly marked, he found the cut-off to WAIGHT ISLAND, REALLY HOSPITAL, and followed it down in a long corkscrew curve. As he descended, the fumes and heat became more noxious: It was summer and the meatball was sizzling. Picking his way through a maze of small roads, he eventually came to a haphazard gathering of automobiles that suggested a parking lot. Choosing a spot where the asphalt batter seemed to have grown the hardest in its parched grass frying pan, he pulled in and turned off his engine. Feeling small and insignificant in the face of it, feeling the heat pulsating off it in waves, he let his eyes wander up the juggernaut's gray brick face. He took out his handkerchief, swiped it across his face, breathed deeply, and headed for the hospital's main entrance.
                But he could find no main entrance. There were only dark screen doors opening onto loading docks, sagging canvas carts piled high with dirty linen, crumpled trash cans surrounded by trash and, coming from the inside, blasts of hot air, the hum of machinery, and the rattle of pots and pans. Through one of the screen doors, to which he pressed his face, he could make out ceiling fans turning drowsily, bare lightbulbs dangling from frayed wires, and the furtive movements of people in dark skins and white uniforms. Despite the hint given by a lonely flagpole stranded in some parched grass, the building seemed to be all rear. After wandering into several courtyards and cul-de-sacs littered with yellowed newspapers, chipped flagstones, and broken glass, he returned to where he had begun, mounted the stairs to a heavy door with a single wire-reinforced window, and went in.
                In the distance, as though at the end of a tunnel, there was another door with another wire-reinforced window. ("Lowbuttock, Dr. Lowbuttock, droned a voice from the ceiling. Reitoff, Dr. Reitoff. Dr. Combover, Dr. Combover. Dr. Post, Dr. Post, Dr. Mortimer Post. . . .") Where was everyone? he wondered. Proceeding through the second door, he eventually came to a large bulletin board, where the words HEMATOLOGY PLAYS PAYROLL, ADMIN PLAYS ICU, ONCOLOGY PLAYS LAB caught his eye. Closer inspection revealed that he was staring at the schedule for the hospital's bowling league. On the wall above the bulletin board he now noticed two arrows pointing in opposite directions, a red one with the words TWO MILES beneath it, and a green one with THREE MILES; on the floor, red and green lines extended as far as he could see. After puzzling over it for a moment, he deduced that these were mileage markers for cardiac patients, and the like, who had been instructed to get out of their rooms and walk. Following the green line and rounding the corner, he came to a door festooned with crepe paper. Glancing up and down the hall and seeing no one, he gently nudged the door open, and suddenly found himself staring into a sort of recreation room whose modest bandstand, stacks of folding chairs, and gaggle of people chatting around a bar resembled nothing so much as a church basement. The difference—he could see in a moment—was that here, along with the usual drinks, you could get Librium and cola, Demerol and seltzer, Thorazine and grapefruit juice, sedatives and amphetamines in a variety of mixers. Beneath the aroma of cigarettes and liquor, he detected something that smacked of chloral hydrate, or formaldehyde.
                The information Scot had given him enabled Benny to recognize the Shady Acres part of the hospital complex—KEEP YOUR ACHERS WATERED said a sign over the bar—that section of the hospital where old singers, entertainers, and used celebrities of all sorts were given their final days off—that is, the days after the bewitching wind of mass hysterical popularity had changed—and allowed to spend them without undue taxation and in the company of their own kind.
                と, wunnaful, wunnaful! Exclaimed a round-faced man at the bar, eyeing him. "Dank you very much, boys and girls!"
                ㅨ, what's up Doc? Someone else screeched.
                "Well, thufferin' thuccotash!"
                Among the half-familiar faces Benny recognized the old blues singer, Johnny Moccasin, and a man who could have been none other than Burton Furbelow pushed away from the bar into the general twilight of the room and, holding his drink out from him, gyrated his hips to illustrate a once-famous dance. There was a faint tap-tapping on the bar as someone beat out a half-hearted rhythm.
                And that's the way it is. . . , the white-haired man intoned, his voice heavy with melancholy. 㓡m, why don't you set us all up again?"
                Feeling like a voyeur and wondering if he ought to have intruded, Benny nevertheless let his gaze wander across the room to another crudely drawn sign: SCHOONERS SEVENTY-FIVE CENTS, CROONERS A DIME A DOZEN.
                "I tell you, I'm no crook! Said a man with a ski-jump nose who now came over, looked him up and down, and seemed to take issue with an accusation Benny had no recollection of making. I tell you, I'm no crook. But you're welcome to come have one with us."
                (A politician, thought Benny. But who had he been?)
                "Heeeerrre's. . .Johnny!"
                The words pierced the dusky shadows to some tired and predictable laughter.
                "Hey kids, what time is it?"
                "It's Howdy Doody time!"
                "You gonna come have one with us?" repeated the man with the ski-jump nose. "Or am I gonna have to bust ya one?"
                A small, frizzy-haired man angled over and joined the politician and the band leader:
                "He's right, don't just stand there blowin' in the wee-ind. Why 'ont'cha come have one with us?"
                "Thanks, I'd like to, said Benny, I really would. But I'm looking for the geri—" (he wasn't sure what word to use), I'm looking for the old people per se. Can anyone direct me in, uh, that direction?''
                "Sure, sure," said the politician. "Hey Roy! Come over here! This young fella wants to know where the real ghosts are! Tell us about the old floozie-doozies"
                A tall, good-looking man in a cowboy outfit jingled over.
                "Well, pardner," he said, smiling like a kindly scoutmaster, "you ain't far off the track. You follow this green line right on down this 'ere canyon." He went to the door and, leaning out like a cattail, pointed. "Then, at the crossroads—you see where that black fellaⳠmoppin—at the crossroads you turn right, and you'll come to the alleviators. You take one of them alleviators up to the top, take 'er right on up to the top, and you'll see 'er. Your people'll be out all over the mesa. Now you're sure you won't come have one with us?"
                "Yes, I am, said Benny. I really appreciate the invitation, but I have important business to take care of."
                "Well then, happy trails."
                "You mean, 'happy entrails" someone shouted.
                "It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Super—!"
                Excusing himself, Benny backed across the threshold and let the door close behind him.
                He continued down the hall and came to the elevators. When a car arrived, he heard laughter and giggling from within; when the door opened, a gaggle of doctors and nurses spilled out.
                "Well, different strokes for different folks!" said one. "See you Monday!"
                And there, standing at the rear of the car—all but crouching with fear and indecision—was the very man he was looking for.
                "Oh dear, dear me," said Gramps Anthony, stepping off tentatively and all but falling into his arms. I seem to have strayed rather far from home base. There was something important I was trying to remember, and I thought if I took a walk I would be able to remember it. But now I can't even remember what I was trying to remember. But it'll come to me, it'll come to me, because it's all right here." The speaker pointed to his knee. "Knee-monics. It's all available through knee-monics."Then his voice got lower, and a cloud seemed to descend upon him. "Tell me, please, and you may be perfectly frank. Do you have any idea where we are?"
                From Scot's information Benny knew not to call him by his first name, Nomen, and not to call him ㍲. Anthony, certainly not to use the overly familiar Gramps. The Gramps before his surname was a stubborn, self-chosen advertisement of who he was, a title like ㊵dge䠯r General that southern gentlemen used to take, a title he had appropriated out of defiance and had insisted upon using even during the nation's recent descent into juvenocracy.
                "Yes I do, said Benny, and I'd be most happy to take you home! Come with me!"
                He turned the diminutive, white-haired man around and ushered him back into the elevator.
                "And your name?" the man said, cupping his hand to his ear. "I didn't catch your name."
                "Benjamin. Benjamin Wise. People call me Benny."
                "Oh, that's easy enough to remember! 'Benny Wise and pound fool—'"
                "I know, I know," Benny interrupted.
                There was a moment of recoil followed by one of mutual forgiveness, and then they shook hands, Benny being careful not to squeeze too hard.
                "You see, I'm not lost at all!" Gramps Anthony chirped as Benny pushed the elevator button. "Driver! Take us to the top!"

 
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