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
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
"'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
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
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,
"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,
"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
"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
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!"