BENNY'S MISSION
A Novel

(Chapter 4, 11 Pages in Typescript)
 
 
 
 
FOUR                        
 

                And so it came to pass that all the long hot summer Benny made visits to the ward, the specifically geriatrics ward on the forty-third floor of Really Hospital, visits in which he posed as Miss McCreary's grandson and thereby aroused no suspicion among the nurses, for the only other person who came there regularly was Santa Claus, played each year by an overweight dietician from downstairs named Mrs. Cohn. Doctors breezed through, of course, asking everyone "how are we today?" and bustling on before they could be inconvenienced by a reply. And nurses, who at the conclusion of rounds devoted to keeping their charges alive, revised the bets they had among themselves as to how soon they would be dead. Benny, on the other hand, came by choice and by conviction, giving freely of his time and chatting with the old folks in the dayroom, at their bedsides, on the solarium. How did they feel about growing old? he asked them. What did they think about the care they were receiving? Was it adequate to their needs? In general, had society given them a fair shake (not shake, exactly: they weren't pieces of chicken being floured in a paper bag), but had society done right by them? Had it made them feel honored, valued, revered? By the way he shaped his conversation, he tried to gauge their feelings, to sound them for discontent and assess their ability and willingness to take action. Often, as he did so, he would stare out the rain-streaked windows and ponder the layers of traffic hurrying along like ants in an ant box, or try to make out the skyline of the city in the gloomy haze across the river. How long should he wait before he told them what was on his mind? Miss Wilmot, who smiled at him constantly from behind her twinkly glasses as if his whole point—which he was slowly coming to—was to present her with some kind of fabulous award: how would she take it? How much did she understand?
                As Scot's information had suggested, it was Gramps Anthony who was of greatest help in the scheduling of his visits, Gramps Anthony who gave him bits of background and gossip that helped him know how to talk to the old folks. On these things, at least, his memory was quite intact. He told Benny, for example, that the man known as Twobirds, Harold Timmerman, had acquired the nickname when, after a long period of illness, he had announced that his appetite had increased from that of one bird to that of two birds. He explained that the courtly, dignified black man, Jubilee Williams, derived considerable consolation from the man who tipped his hat to him, every morning, in the mirror over his bureau. He confided that Harmon Dieseling, who shuffled along with the aid of an iron horse, still had illusions about returning to the boxing ring, and that Skeeta Moffett credited her "sexy figure," and the fact that all the men on the ward were "secretly wild" about her, to the fact that she had always "dined on a diet of kings."
                "'Dines on butterflies' is more like it," said Gramps Anthony, with a squeal of pleasure.
                If it was through Gramps Anthony that Benny got to know the people on the ward and to find his stereotypes being undermined by their colorful personalities, the association at the same time underscored the old man's importance as a liaison, for of the seventy-odd people who were in residence when he arrived there, only Gramps Anthony seemed able to keep his distance from the petty quarrels and jealousies, the quibbles and wrangles and teapot tempests, that raged along the halls and between the rooms, only Gramps Anthony seemed able to discern in Benny's visits a reason for transcending individual differences. Benny gradually discovered that Gramps Anthony was a kind of spiritual father to the group, the leader—if they had been going anywhere—of the flock. Most important of all, it was he alone who seemed to sense the purpose of Benny's visits, he alone who, far down in the deep active waters of his memory, seemed to have discerned the outlines of an age-old treasure that Benny might be seeking to raise.
                It was on a dozy Sunday afternoon at the end of August, when the only nurse on duty had sequestered herself behind the ward clerk's desk and buried herself in a cheap paperbound—Benny had given her The Complete Tales of Handrail ap Fthaeg in five volumes, and she had stayed out of his hair all summer—that Gramps Anthony discreetly circulated a request among the ambulatories that they gather themselves together and amble toward the solarium.
                Friends. . . ," he said, after the old folks had alighted, and with the residual knocking about of canes and crutches come to their various rests, "friends, as you know, Mr. ah, Mr. Foolish has been with us on numerous occasions in the past several months, numerous, I should say, very pleasant occasions. He glanced at Benny, who was sitting at the side of the room, and nodded. "Now Mr. Pound, that is, ah, Mr. Wise, has asked that we gather here today for the purpose of, oh dear, of"—Gramps Anthony reached for the top of the bumpy vinyl chair and steadied himself—"oh yes, for the purpose of hearing some remarks he thinks will be of more than usual interest to us." He paused and glanced again at Benny. I wonder if, for the next few minutes, we could all give him our undivided attention. Ah, Benny. . . ?"
                During the pause while he waited for the old man to find his way to his seat, Benny realized the speech was going to be a hundred times more difficult than he had ever expected. Was it possible? All those ants? And beginning here and now? As he got up and moved to the center of the room, he was haunted by the realization that Scot Frey would have known what to say. Scot Frey would have laid it on the line, Scot Frey wouldn't have minced words. When he contemplated the crowd before him, their faces received him with as much warmth and kindness as if he were about to tell a joke, or offer a toast, at a family reunion. In the seats closest to him there were many shaking faces and twitching hands. Now we are all trembling, he thought.
                He had meant to start out slowly, to provide some background and general remarks, then lay out the issues one by one. But such a flood of images rushed into his mind—images jumping like sparks over an ever-widening grid, playing like a film across the back of his mind and running on without any relation to the words coming out his mouth—that he blurted:
                These new advances that are being talked about in bionics and cryogenics, and the like, these newfangled technical procedures that are being bandied about in the scientific press, are no rumor! We have known for some time now that sufficient research has been done on the aging process—the prevention of lipofuscin build-up, the mechanics of tissue regeneration, the technology of organ transplants, and so forth—to have raised the possibility that one day very soon humans will be able to live to a hundred and thirty, a hundred and forty, or more!"
                The shaking in the front row stopped. A sublimely contented snoring from the back of the room was caught up short in midbreath. A palpable electric charge filled the air.
                Until recently, he raced on, it was thought that this possibility—this miracle, really—would require treatment of a person's body over long periods of time, would necessitate conditioning of one sort or another throughout much of his adult life. But we now know that this is not the case. Recently there have been a number of significant breakthroughs—breakthroughs, I'm sorry to say, the government has not seen fit to make public—that make this no longer a thing of some vague, indeterminate future, no longer a thing of some utopian dream, but a fact of the immediate present. We believe scientists working in government laboratories and at the nation's leading universities have all but perfected a method for freezing the body at death and holding it in suspension while they perform complicated transfusions of blood, hormones, and enzymes, with the result that people will soon be able to have second lifetimes, lifetimes just as long and active as the first!"
                From various parts of the room there were gasps and choking noises. A few people burst into tears, others looked at those next to them and smiled or laughed, as if this were all a joke. Benny had a vision of thousands of people gathered before the White House, swaying, surging, waving placards, of newspapers with banner headlines streaming off presses, of the end of conflict and war as humanity marched with a single purpose in a single great parade.
                Eventually the hubbub subsided, and he returned to his subject.
                "Now we have good reason to believe that this process can be repeated indefinitely, that death can be permanently forestalled and rendered obsolete, so what we are talking about is—he choked on it, tears seemed to well up out of his stomach—"what we are talking about this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, is ongoing existence, perpetual existence—you know, eternal life!"
                There were cries of pleasure, joy, and dismay, an outburst which, yielding to hunger for more news, again quickly subsided.
                Despite his excitement Benny thought it best to go on to practical matters, to draw his listeners back to the real world, to tie the strings together by telling them why he had been visiting them, and why it was he who was telling them this.
                "Now it's the old folks, venerable, lively old, uh, old-timers like yourselves, who have the most to gain from the deliberate, I should say speedy perfection of this process. You all are, in a sense, the rightful heirs to this technological revolution, the people who stand to, uh, lose the most by its continued secrecy. You—the people in this room—are the revolutionaries, if you will, who can throw light upon this whole matter, force it out into the open, and at the same time lift from the backs of mankind its oldest, uh, oppression. But why you, why this group right here? you might well ask. I can answer that. Since Really Hospital is one of the largest and most important geriatric centers in the country and by far the most important in the city, it's only natural that it, and especially you, be the ones to lead, or spearhead the attack."
                Now numb and speechless, they stared at him.
                Was he going too fast? Was there something he had left out, something else he should have said? Sensing the cruelty of keeping them waiting, he cleared his throat and pushed on.
                "Now, the organization I represent has decided to ask you, the people in this room, to take an important and critical role in this movement. Specifically, we're going to ask you to get a delegation together from among yourselves and travel to Washington, and show— show with the actual presence of old people—the crying need for the government to make public its discoveries, to stop holding back from the people the research the people themselves have financed and made possible. A spokesman from your group, I suggest Gramps Anthony" (the old man smiled and bowed: the only person, it seemed, who had been following right along in his remarks), "Gramps Anthony, I suggest, might be able to obtain an audience with the First Husband, and in a heart-to-heart talk—after all, he's getting on in years—appeal to him directly. If that fails, however, we're going to have to rely on the hard work and dedication of the rest of you. And I warn you, it's not going to be easy."
                He didn't know quite how to end his speech—what ending was there that he could possibly lead up to?—so he pretended that he had ended, brought a look of studious concentration to his face, and asked:
                "Are there any questions?"
                A frenzy of talk started up again, then, on the shushing of people around the room, subsided. Benny waited and finally, like a wisp of smoke, a hand went up in the back.
                It was one of the ladies of whom he had grown extremely fond, Mrs. Havermeyer.
                "Yes, Mrs. Havermeyer," he said.
                "Aaaaaarghh, Mr. Wise, aaaaaaarghh, in view of what you've said, does this mean I'll one day be able to—"
                "Louder!" someone shouted.
                "We can't hear you!" someone else screamed.
                "For chrissakes woman, speak up!"
          "AAAAAARGHH, DOES THIS MEAN I⌌ ONE DAY BE ABLE TO VISIT MY GRANDCHILDREN IN RUINED LAKE, NORTH DAKOTA?"
                Startled by the question, Benny paused and reflected.
               "Yes, Mrs. Havermeyer," he said finally. "Yes, it certainly would."
                "Oh golly, that's terrific, aaaaaaarghh. . . ."
                Eventually another hand went up: not lazily like smoke, this time, but in the form of a clenched fist. When Benny recognized him, Mr. Dieseling stood up, scraped and shuffled out to the aisle, and threw his weight on his iron horse.
                サt suppose our movement isn't successful?" he said, in his excitement rattling the walker. Suppose nobody in Washington listens to us, or pays attention to us? Suppose they turn a deaf ear and slam the door in our faces? What if—and you ladies, please excuse my language—they tell us to go to hell?"
                Around the room there were rumblings and murmurs of assent.
                "If that happens," said Benny (and here he regained the kind of assurance Scot would have shown), "If that happens, we're going to ask you to call attention to yourselves right here at the hospital. We're going to ask you to begin interrupting the normal hospital routine. We're going to ask you to stay in bed all day and get up out of bed at night. We're going to ask you to stop taking your medications, we may ask you not to eat. We're going to ask you to write to your Congressmen and meet with representatives of the press, we're going to ask you to make absolute nuisances of yourselves until the politicians—and the people of this country— come to you."
                The clenched fist was in the air again.
                "Well I, for one, am ready!" bellowed Mr. Dieseling, shaking his walker for emphasis. "I for one, was never afraid of a fight! Hell, I'm in good shape! Let ᥭ come tangle with me!"
                "Yeah, that goes for me, too!" some of the other men shouted.
                And now there was a great chorus.
                "We agree with Harmon!"
                "Harmon is right, we're not afraid of a fight!"
                "Whaddaya say, boys, let's have at 'em!"
                "You ladies, stand back! We'll take care 'a this. . . !"
                Many other issues and questions were raised and discussed that afternoon, but they served more to give the old people time to digest this abrupt rearrangement of their lives and fortunes than to settle details or establish a specific course of action. In fact, the moment soon came when Benny saw that his presence on the scene was not only unnecessary but intrusive. An exalted silence had filled the room, the crowd of old folks had given themselves over to hushed meditation; the occasional whispers, here and there, only made the silence more dramatic. Benny began drifting over to the side door, and with an unconscious bow of triumph made his way out. Except for Gramps Anthony, in fact, no one even noticed his departure.
                As he got in his car and drove up the ramp from Waight Island, he felt more than a little at peace with himself, he was conscious of a rare and special oneness, the oneness of all people and all things. The end of turmoil and strife, the end of conflict and warfare, the end of—The End ...! Even the weather had cast its blessing, as stale summer light finally gave way to the cool, crisp colors of fall. The cars on the expressways, the parents and children rushing to and fro, the aircraft overhead, the repair crews working overtime to repair the roads—all had their proper places, their ordained and proper functions. As he pulled up to the toll booth at the bridge leading back to the city, a big, pleasant-looking man leaned out the window for his money.
                "Nice day, eh?" Benny shouted.
                The man stared at him as if his hair were on fire, or flames were shooting out his exhaust pipe.
                "'Nice day'! What's the matter witch you, fella? Ain't chew heard? War's been declared!"

 
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