Member Rara Avis
I walk the early morning streets of Los Angeles knowing the potential dangers, but for the first time in my life not really fearing them. The sun rose ten minutes ago, slowly beginning its predictable climb across the sky. The streets, protected by the skyscrapers of steel and concrete, are still gray and cold, though the hazy beams of sunlight crossing intersections like lazy pedestrians promise warmth later in the day. During this time of the year, mid-February, I suspect the promise may be an empty one.
I descend the steep Fifth Avenue hill and turn right on Olive. The Bonaventure dominates this corner, towering over my head like an ancient behemoth, a relic of better times long since passed. In the doorway, like a modern cave recessed two or three feet into ornamental concrete, a thick pile of spread newspapers snores. My destination lies across Olive, into the heart of the oldster's camp.
The park is over a hundred and fifty years old, dating back to the 1940's. It takes up an entire city block, circumscribed on this side by Fifth and Olive and on the opposite side by Sixth and Flower, bounded by asphalt streets like a medieval castle surrounded by its brackish moat. If I push my imagination into the distant past, I can picture expanses of grass and well-tended trees, landscaped beds of colorful flowers, benches installed strategically for the weary. Today the greens are covered by the grays of cardboard huts, the flowers are replaced by campfires dying in the dawn light, and the weary have turned the park into home.
I'm not sure what I thought to find here, not certain how I expected it to be. There are so many makeshift huts, so many oldsters. They cover the park like leaves on a willow, here and there spilling into the gutters of the surrounding streets. I hesitate at the edge of the camp, breathing the acrid odor of burning fires and the more pungent stench of crowded people. Closer now, I can see there are small paths leading through the huts, no path more than a foot wide, some dead-ending just five or six feet into the camp. Most of the oldsters still sleep, curled up beneath newspapers and old clothes, scrunched as far back into their cardboard homes as space allows, hiding from the cold. A few are awake beneath their covers, sitting or lying immobile, their eyes following me, their faces expressionless. Do they see me as a threat? Or as a victim?
I walk the perimeter of the camp, unwilling, maybe unable, to enter the confines of the oldsters just yet. It's the same all the way around, with different faces, different huts, some huts large, some barely big enough to hold half a human body. I pass a rusted bucket at one corner, sitting ten feet away from the nearest cardboard hut, its sloshy contents smelling of urine and feces.
On my second circuit of the camp I find a woman standing on the curb, waiting as I approach.
"You're early," she says. Her hair is shorter than mine, grayer than mine would be even without treatment. She's short, maybe five foot, but wearing so many clothes beneath a large green over-coat I find it hard to judge her girth. She stands straight, if not tall, her hands hidden in the pockets of the coat. She wears glasses, with one lens missing, and her face is a thick leather mask of dark lines and wrinkles.
"Most come at night," she says, nodding. "Just before the sun goes down. I'm Myrtle."
"Ben Stone," I say.
"Well, come with me, Ben Stone, and we'll find someplace to sit and talk."
She leads me, with slow but unfaltering steps, into the depths of the oldster camp. All around us, on either side of the narrow path, oldsters are waking to a new day, moving about with grunts and low groans. I judge we're almost to the center of the park when we turn a corner and I see a small concrete fountain. It's about six feet across, its base shaped like a wading pool, with a shallow concrete dish projecting from its center. There's a nozzle in the center of the dish, where pumps once forced a stream of clean water straight into the air to overflow into the pool. But the dish is dry now, strewn with leaves and twigs from nearby trees, and the pool at its base is filled with the refuse of past fires.
Myrtle leads me to a large wooden crate, tipped to lay on one side and sitting a few feet from the fountain. The crate, THIS END UP printed in faded lettering on the side, is about three feet square and maybe five feet deep. The floor of the makeshift home is covered with old blankets and rags, dirty, almost oily. To one side of the opening is a pile of debris; a few cracked dishes, a metal bowl, a bright red plastic pail, its sides scratched in a dozen places, a few dust covered books.
"You'll have to forgive the place," Myrtle says, lowering herself slowly to sit on the ground. "I haven't had a chance to make the bed this morning." I almost answer automatically, some polite pleasantry, and only just stop myself from responding to her sarcasm. Instead, I follow the motion of her waved hand and seat myself on the dirt ground a few feet opposite her.
"So, today's your birthday? Happy birthday, Ben Stone."
"Yesterday," I say.
"Really? I guess you're not early after all. Rather later than most, I would say." I just nod, not knowing what to say. "Where did you sleep last night then?"
"I didn't sleep. I just walked around."
"Thinking, no doubt. That's dangerous, Ben. The walking around part, I mean, not the thinking. We've got rules in this camp, but some of the others are parasites. You could have been hurt, you know. And now that your NatCare has been cancelled, getting hurt at your age is usually fatal." She pauses, but if she's looking for an answer, I have none to give her. "Well, we all do foolish things from time to time, I guess. I take it you're here to join our little community?"
"I considered it," I say.
"Meaning you haven't made up your mind? You don't exactly have a lot of time, you know. I mean, you were lucky last night, but you'd be a damn fool to push that luck. My advice is to join a camp before the sun goes down again. Or were you thinking about the Retirement Clinic?"
Should I tell her what I think she wants to hear? Or should I be honest? People say the oldsters won't talk about the Clinic, except to use it to insult one another. 'Go to the Clinic' is a curse far more personal to them than Go to Hell could ever be, and get euthed more meaningful than get screwed. "It is an alternative," I say, deciding on the truth.
She shrugs her shoulders, a motion just barely making it to the surface beneath all her clothing. "Sorry," she says, "but if you're looking for an argument you've come to the wrong place. Fact is, we don't much want anyone here that can't make up their own mind about that."
I thought I had done that last night, thought that's why I had come to this place this morning.
Myrtle leans, setting her back against the corner of her crate, and stretches her feet out before her. She's wearing old tennis shoes beneath her long coat. She puts one frail, liver-spotted hand on the top of where her stomach should be beneath the bulging clothes, just under her breasts, and stares into my eyes. Something about her position seems familiar to me. For a moment I see Sharon sitting across from me, eight months pregnant with Robin, her right hand resting both defensively and contentedly upon our unborn baby.
"I missed my period, Ben," Sharon said without warning or preamble. "I think maybe I'm pregnant." As long as I live, I don't think I will ever forget the look on her face when she spoke those words to me. Hopeful. Scared. Expectant. I was seventeen, just a few months from my eighteenth birthday, and she was sixteen. So very young.
"Are you sure?" I whisper, suddenly afraid the other kids would overhear us. The coffee shop was a local hangout for our high school, a place to run into friends you would never see in their homes, a place of joking and occasional rough housing, a place to share rumors and only slightly fictionalized experiences. A block from Jackson Central, it was a convenient place for Sharon and I to meet at the end of the school day.
"Pretty sure, I think. I missed my pills a lot the first of the year. But it's more than just skipping my period. I feel different." Sharon was never what one would call beautiful, not with a face marred with squinty eyes and too-thick lips. But she had a charisma about her, a charisma based on confidence, personality and, above all, sensuality.
She leaned against me in the plastic booth, our Diet Cokes as yet untouched before us on the plastic table. I reached down and took both her hands in mine. "Do you want to have it?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. No hesitation, no questioning, no thinking. Just Yes. I put my arms around Sharon, hugging her close to me, oblivious for the moment of what others would say about us. I think she cried, though if so it was done silently. I stared over her shoulder, at our reflections in the milky glass window, wondering what it was going to be like to be a father.
"Do you mind?" she said into my shoulder. Though younger, Sharon was by far the more mature of the two of us, and I think she knew the childish words of love we had spoken to each other over the past year were going to be put to the test.
I don't think I was really scared, except maybe about telling Sharon's parents, but I also don't think I thought about the responsibilities. "Mind?" I said. "Of course, I don't mind. I think it's great."
"Really?" she said, pulling away and looking into my face. "You don't have to say it if it's not true, you know."
"Really," I said, smiling at her. "We planned on getting married after graduating, anyway. Now we won't have to wait."
"You're tired," Myrtle says, touching my shoulder. "After walking around all night, you're probably not even thinking straight anymore." I'm surprised to find the old woman standing over me, and briefly wonder why I'm sitting on the dirt ground. "Why don't you sack out for a few hours," she continues, gesturing with her head to the crate. "We can talk again later."
Suddenly, I feel so god-awful tired, more weary than I can remember ever feeling. "I don't want to take your bed," I say, knowing it to be only a small lie.
"I got plenty to do, believe me," she says, laughing quietly. "Don't use that bed all that much any way, certainly not during the day. We'll find you something else later, of course. That is, if you decide to stay."
I wake to the pressure of a hand on my leg, pulling me from the depths of my dream. Startled, I jerk and bang my head on the side of the wooden crate.
"Sorry," says Myrtle. "I thought you might be getting hungry." She's kneeling at the opening of the crate, holding a small metal bowl in one hand, steam rising from its contents. I push back the woolen blanket I grabbed sometime in my sleep and shimmy out of the crate. The sun is hanging low in the sky, a few wispy clouds just beginning to tinge with reds and pinks. Somewhere in the distance, I can hear the electric whine of street traffic.
I rub my hands across my face and through my hair, and take the offered bowl from Myrtle. It holds either thick soup or thin stew, nothing immediately recognizable. "Thanks," I say.
"You look like you're feeling a little better, Ben. Eat up and I'll introduce you to some of my friends."
My body hurts all over and my mouth feels like crap, but I find I do actually feel better. The soup helps, too, its heat filling my stomach more than its bulk allows for. Myrtle sits patiently while I eat, not talking but not occupying herself with anything but watching me. She almost makes me feel like a child again, like my mother standing over the table to insure I eat all my vegetables. When I scrape the last spoonful from the sides of the bowl, she smiles at me and takes the bowl from my hands, returning it to the pile of debris next to the crate.
"Com'on," she says. The clearing she leads me to is on the other side of the dry fountain, an area of hard packed dirt ten or twelve feet wide. There's a large tree next to the clearing, an ash I think, and three oldsters sit under its nearly bare limbs. She introduces me to Jacob, Dorothy, and Betty.
They talk about things going on in the camp, about where so-and-so found food this morning, about somebody falling and breaking a leg, about what they're going to do if it rains again. I feel distant from their group, separate and alone. Myrtle glances in my direction occasionally, as if she's looking for me to add to the conversation, but I don't understand what she expects. Two other oldsters join us, a Jim and Robert, and one of them, I'm not sure which, sits between Myrtle and me. I'm surprised at myself for feeling resentment at such a simple thing.
"What did you used to do for a living, Ben?" asks Dorothy, abruptly shifting the attention of the group to me. She's a large woman, close to six feet tall and weighing probably two hundred pounds, with a surprisingly soft voice.
"I'm a history teacher," I say. "I mean . . . I was a history teacher. At USC."
"Mm," mumbles Jacob, a tiny old man with no hair, "Not much use around here for a teacher. Can you do anything else?"
"Nonsense," says Myrtle. "I'll bet Ben knows some wonderful stories he could tell us. We haven't had a good story-teller since Constance died, bless her soul."
"Stories?" I say.
"What else is history, Ben, if it's not story-telling? You must know hundreds of good stories, maybe thousands." In thirty-five years of teaching history, I had never thought of it that way.
"Who knows stories?" asks a new woman joining the group. I never do catch her name.
"Ok," says Jacob, leaning back against the ash, "tell us a story then, history teacher." I find myself staring at seven expectant faces, Myrtle's smiling encouragement at me.
"What kind of story do you want to hear?" I ask.
"Tell us about the Civil War," Dorothy says, "and about the Southern women."
"How about a story about the Kennedys, those presidents that got killed a hundred years ago?"
"No, " says Jacob, "I want to hear about the New York Riots in 2012."
"I could tell you about the Civil War," I say, nodding to Dorothy, "but I don't know much about Southern women. And, yes, there were two Kennedys assassinated, Myrtle, but only one of them was a president. The Riots were in 2014, by the way, Jacob." I find myself warming to the task these oldsters have set me. "Besides," I say, "wouldn't you rather hear a story with a happier ending than those?"
"Don't forget your audience, Ben," says Myrtle. "We all learned a long time ago that most happy endings turn bad somewhere along the road, and most sad endings have happiness in them for someone. And don't you dare start out with 'Once upon a time' either." Everyone but Jacob laughs, and even he smiles a little.
"How would you like to hear the history of Retirement, then," I say, wondering if I'm being deliberately cruel. My suggestion is greeted with silence at first, as each of the oldster's sitting around the ash look back and forth at each other.
"Ben's right," Myrtle says. "That's as good a story as any, I think."
"I'll listen," says Jacob.
The seven faces crowd closer to me, all except Jacob who continues leaning against the ash, and I find myself sitting next to Myrtle again. I stare at the ground for a few seconds, composing my thoughts, and feel Myrtle reach over and briefly touch my knee.
"Ok," I begin, "our story actually starts out in the Nineteenth Century. That may seem like a long way into the past to start, but I could actually go back much farther. The first thing you have to realize about history, I guess, is that's it's not a bunch of little, disjointed stories. Everything that's ever happened in time, everything in the past and everything in the future, always effects events to follow. So history is more like a novel than a story, with each chapter building on those before it.
"In the Nineteenth Century this country, as well as the rest of the world, was one vast farming community. It had been that way for thousands of years. Oh, there was some manufacturing, of course. They made weapons, calling them six-shooters and gattling guns. They built plows and tillers and wove some cloth. And toward the end of the century they were even building the first successful steam engines. But the small pockets of manufacturing and business were just that, small pockets. Most of the country was either unexplored or devoted to growing or raising food. And just about every one of those farms and ranches was owned by a single family. That's important.
"When a man grew too old to work his farm in those days, he would pass it on to one of his children. Usually his oldest son, though sometimes a married daughter. But he and his wife would continue to live on the farm, staying with those who took it over, doing what work they could for as long as they lived. In those days, families were usually comprised of at least three generations, sometimes four, what historians today call the extended family. Kids grew up knowing their grandparents, being as close to them as they were to their Mom and Dad. In fact, most of the teaching was done by grandma and grandpa, things like cooking and mending, fishing and hunting. The grandparents contributed, not only with work and the wisdom accumulated through their years, but with love.
"A couple of decades into the Twentieth Century, things had changed. Our country had started manufacturing the first cars, steam trains crisscrossed the whole United States delivering goods to those willing to buy them, and even the farms were being automated, becoming larger and fewer as mechanization allowed the farmer to feed more people per square acre. Cities were springing up across the land, and more and more people were moving from the farms to those cities. At first, this new life didn't make much difference -- the extended family had existed for thousands of years and wasn't going to disappear overnight. Small business initially replaced the farm, being handed from father to son, and even in the cities families were still comprised of three or four generations living together in the same house.
"Fifty or sixty years passed, bringing us to the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Almost everyone was living in cities by then, the family-owned farm survived only as a subsidy of the government, and the giant corporations had largely replaced the small father and son businesses. The world was changing at an incredible pace. Technology played a part in that change, of course, and people talked about the 'shrinking world' and the 'global village.' But the real changes, the important changes, were spurred more by economics than by science. Historians call the last half of the Twentieth Century the 'Golden Age of America.' We were the richest nation on Earth, partially as a result of technology, but mostly just because we had remained undamaged during the big war at mid-century. Prosperity was everywhere, and even the poorest families had more than the richest did just a hundred years earlier. Our wealth made each individual more independent, less reliant on others for subsistence. Even within the family.
"The first thing that happened was that people realized they didn't need their parents hanging around so long any more. It was easier to hire a babysitter or a maid than it was to put up with grandma's nagging. And grandpa's wisdom was thought to be archaic, outstripped by the advance of technology and the changing world. And the grandparents, about that same time, began to think they didn't need to live with their kids as much as they needed freedom to enjoy their last years on Earth. Traveling seemed more exciting than teaching grandchildren, and socializing was more important than advising the family. Some of them worked longer to afford their freedom -- there weren't any laws yet about hiring oldsters -- and many of them received money from their past employers when they were too old to work. In fact, that's where the original word 'retirement' came from.
"Even those who didn't get money from their past employers received some money, though not always a lot, from the government. Years before, the government had passed what was called the Social Security Act, guaranteeing the working man a life after he was too old to work. It promised money for the rest of his days and guaranteed medical coverage, called MediCare. Most people don't realize our National Insurance program was modeled on Medicare, though Medicare was only for oldsters. And NatCare is for everyone but oldsters. Someone once observed that a democracy would function only until the people realized they could vote themselves 'bread and circuses.' Well, Social Security was the circus that almost broke this nation's back."
"Wait a minute," says Dorothy, her hand shooting up like a school child. "You almost make it sound like Social Security was evil. Hell, it sounds absolutely great to me."
"It was great," I say, nodding. "And the ideals behind it were even greater. It just couldn't last. As great as the idea was, it's actual implementation depended on a young work force supporting the one that had gone before it. It never took into account the fact that people were already living longer, even with the poor health care of the Twentieth Century, and many more people were living beyond retirement age. In 1900, there were only 123,000 Americans 85 years old, Dorothy. By the end of that century, there were three million. By the middle of this century, in 2050, there were fifty million, even though Social Security had already gone the way of the dinosaur and American eagle.
"But we're getting ahead of the story. The first major wave of oldsters hit the Social Security system in the beginning of this century, from about 2010 to 2030. This was a group of people called the Baby Boomers, because they were all born in a very short span of years around the middle of the 20th century. Some historians think this influx of births was due to the automobile, specifically the introduction of a back seat, though most agree it had more to do with the end of the second world war. In either case, the Baby Boomers put one hell of a strain on an already fragile system.
"A lot of other things happened about this same time period. In 2012, an amendment to the Civil Rights Bill legalized the right to commit suicide. This battle went back twenty years earlier, when a doctor in Michigan actually spent time in jail for helping terminal patients to die. In 2014, the New York Riots we were talking about earlier occurred, a direct result of unemployment hitting twenty percent. In 2021, the country switched from what was already almost a cashless society to the CashCard, and everyone's assets and liabilities became little bits of electronic data controlled by the banks and the government. In 2027, clone technology took off with the promise of solving every medical problem man had ever faced. A bad heart? A simple transplant from your force-grown clone and you had a new heart and years added to your life. For a brief time, doctors were actually predicting an average life expectancy approaching the Biblical six score years.
"All these pieces came together in 2032, with the biggest political backlash this country has ever experienced. Everything from the stagnant economy to still rising unemployment was blamed on the Social Security system and the oldsters that were draining the resources of our country. Not only did this country refuse to honor its promises to support oldsters, but it passed laws making it illegal to hire anyone over the age of sixty-five for any kind of job. That was supposed to solve the unemployment problems, though there seemed to be more hate involved than real motivation for improvement. Since oldsters weren't allowed to earn money, they didn't need CashCards and all were revoked. Oldsters lost the right to vote. MediCare was cancelled, of course, but they weren't allowed on NatCare. The states jumped on the bandwagon, most passing laws making it illegal to rent to oldsters. In 2033, the newly reorganized Social Security Administration opened the first Retirement Clinic. I was four years old."
Myrtle reaches over and puts her hand in my lap, squeezing my hand with more strength than I could credit her with having. "Then it all comes down to money? We're here so everyone else can have more money?"
I look around and am surprised by all the faces. Our group of seven has grown to twenty-five or thirty people, all of them staring at me expectantly. Overhead, the sun has set and one edge of a full moon is peeking over the top of the skyscrapers surrounding us.
"No," I say slowly, only just reaching conclusions that have long escaped me. "If there's any moral to our story, Myrtle, it has little enough to do with money."
"Two or three hundred years ago, this country, this world, had a lot less real wealth than it has today. But oldsters survived because of the extended family. People took care of their own. A hundred years ago, we replaced that extended family with prosperity. And when the prosperity ended, we had nothing left."
Everyone sits around for several minutes, staring into the growing darkness. Silence. In singles and occasional pairs, my audience grunts to their feet and walks into the tangle of cardboard huts. Jacob comes over and stands above Myrtle and me. I feel a hand on my shoulder, a squeeze. "Good story," he says.
Myrtle and I sit alone in the little clearing, her hand still in my lap. I feel strangely good, even though I know nothing has been settled, either for these people or for me. They know the truth now, at least my version of truth as I've pieced it together. It will make no difference in their lives, or in their deaths, but I feel better nonetheless for having told it to them.
"Com'on," Myrtle says, rising. "It's late, and morning comes soon enough."
We return, along the narrow paths, to Myrtle's crate home, my mind still awash with the past. Things could have been so different for the world. For me. When I stop moving, still several feet from the crate, Myrtle turns and stares at me, the soft light of the moon washing out all the crinkles and lines in her face.
"I have no place to stay," I say.
"Hush," say says, returning to take my arm and lead me forward. "It's too late to find you a place tonight, but I'm not going to put you on the streets alone again. If you want to find another camp tomorrow, you can, but tonight you'll sleep with me."
"Don't be silly," she says, a slight giggle bubbling into her words, "I promise I won't bite. And if you do," she continues, poking my side with a finger, "I promise I'll kick your butt out of here quick. It's gonna get cold tonight, Ben. See, no clouds in the sky. And it'll be good to share each other's warmth."
The crate is cramped, but not unpleasantly so. Myrtle turns away from me and, at her instructions, I face her back and wrap my arms across her spindly shoulders. We're like two spoons in a drawer, our bodies melding together. She smells, but after two days on the streets, I suppose I probably do, too. Her hair tickles my nose.
"G'night," she says.
Spoons. I'm not really tired, not after sleeping all day, and my mind wanders to another time I slept in this position. I haven't thought of Ann for years.
Ann sat across the restaurant booth from me, trying her best to look hard and decisive. "There's not someone else," she said. "I just need some time."
"How much time?" I asked. I was just beginning to realize, if reluctantly, that Ann was no longer my child-bride, no longer a naive girl of eighteen. She was a woman now, twenty-three years old, with a mind and will of her own. I was thirty.
"I don't know. A couple of weeks, I guess."
"Where will you stay?"
"With Steve and Joanie. They said it was ok."
"You already asked your brother? How long has this been going on?"
"If you mean when did I talk to Steve," she said too quietly, "it was two days ago. If you mean when did I start feeling this way, I don't know. A while, I guess."
"I always knew you'd be sorry you quit school," I said. Ann and I had met at Michigan State, both first year history majors. She was straight out of high school, unblemished by life, eager to face the world on her own. And so incredibly beautiful it could make your teeth hurt. I was seven years older, recently discharged from the Navy, recently divorced from a wife I hadn't seen in four years. Ann and I had a couple of classes together, and I somehow convinced her to study with me a few nights a week. I wrote inane poems to her, took her to a few concerts and parties, introduced her to Robin, then seven years old. Eventually, we slept together. Finally, we married. "It's not too late to go back, you know. We can't afford it right now, but we could figure something out."
"School has nothing to do with it," she said.
"It's me, then."
"No, not you either. It's just me, Ben. I feel like I'm disappearing sometimes, like I don't exist. I don't even know what I want out of life anymore."
"I thought you wanted to be my wife. I thought that's what we both wanted."
"I do. But it's not enough all by itself. I have to be a person before I can be a wife." There was a glisten of moisture in Ann's eyes as she spoke, but she blinked it away even as I watched. I had seen her like this before: determined to be determined. She wouldn't allow herself to cry, wouldn't let herself weaken.
I wanted to say something to make everything right again, to make Ann love me with the blind devotion of a child again. I was always so good with words. But only when I was talking to my students or the other teachers. With Ann, words would never come.
"I can't pretend I understand," I tried. "I only know I love you and don't want you to leave me."
"It won't be for long," she said. "I just need some time."
I awake to the sounds of Myrtle hacking, coughing uncontrollably. It's still dark, impossibly dark within our crate, and I struggle to sit without again hitting my head. I lift her shoulders, trying to give her elevation, knowing she needs a drink of water, but having no idea where to find one. She twists out of my grasp, still coughing, and I feel her fumbling for the entrance.
It's lighter outside the crate. The moon has set, but there are a thousand stars in the sky and an occasional fire flickering within the camp. Myrtle paces back and forth in front of the crate, her head down, her hand upon her heaving chest, and with each step the coughing seems to subside a little more.
"Lordy, that was a good one," she wheezes at last. "Sometimes it hits me that way. Sorry to wake you." I just nod, looking at her with more concern than I want to show. She lowers herself beside me, still clasping her chest. Even in the dimness, her face looks pale and clammy. "Isn't usually so bad on these cold nights," she says. "Must have got too stuffy in the crate, what with both of us in there tonight. Not your fault, though," she pats my leg, "it felt good having you there."
"Any idea what the problem is?" I ask.
She shakes her head from side to side. "Walter used to be a doctor, and he says it could be TB or maybe cancer. But he doesn't have any equipment so he can't be sure. Hell, I think it's just a cold that won't go away. Not in this place."
I don't know what to say, so I just put my arm around her. She leans into me, her tiny head against my chest. Her breathing still sounds loud to me, but that could be just the unaccustomed closeness. A few dozen feet away, I hear a rustling in the bushes, then the sounds of someone urinating.
"You won't find a better camp than ours," Myrtle says after a few minutes have passed. "We're more crowded than most, I guess. And the scavenging isn't as good downtown as it is in other places. But we care about each other here, we take care of each other. You don't find that in other camps, Ben."
"I know," I say. "It never occurred to me to go to another camp, Myrtle. Not even when I first arrived. Certainly not now."
"You're still thinking about the Clinic, aren't you?" Her voice is so low the sound of my heart almost drowns out her words.
How do I explain? How do I make her understand the sense of hopelessness within me? "Sometimes I just don't see any reason not to go to the Clinic, Myrtle. Most of the time, I guess. I mean, what are you accomplishing here anyway? Except for putting yourself through unnecessary hell? The Clinic is quicker, more orderly, and in the end the results are the same."
Her head rubs slightly against my chest, as if she's trying to get closer. "I told you yesterday I wouldn't give you an argument against the Clinic. I lied, I guess.
"Ben, you've got to throw away everything you've heard all your life about growing old and listen to the truth. And the truth is that dying isn't supposed to be easy, and it never is. They can give it fancy names like Retirement or Euthanasia, and they can make it painless and quick, but they can damn sure never make it easy. Think about it, Ben. If death were really so attractive, there'd be a line at every Clinic in the world and most of the people in that line wouldn't be old. Every time Life threw someone a curve ball, and it has a thousand of 'em, that line would grow a little longer. But you don't see people waiting in line to die, do you?"
"That's different, Myrtle, and I think you know it. When you're young and things go wrong, you know you still have time to make them right again. No matter how bad things get, you always believe they'll get better. But we have no reasons left to be hopeful. We've been ostracized by society and forgotten by our families, and from the day we turn sixty-five until the day we die that isn't going to change."
"Hogwash, Benjamin!" she says, her tone more gentle than her words. She pulls away from me slightly, turning her face to look up into my eyes. "What you're spouting off is exactly the drivel you've been listening to your whole life. That the minute you reach a certain age, life ends and it's just a matter of waiting for death to catch up. The fact is, you've faced problems all your life, the little deaths that eat us up and make us old, and you've gone past them because you knew that's what life was all about. Well, this is just another problem, Ben. But you're ready to surrender because everyone says it's ok to give up when you turn sixty-five. What's so magical about the number sixty-five? Why couldn't retirement come at forty? Or ninety?"
"It could, I guess. But it doesn't. Right or wrong, society determines when our productive lives come to an end. And they say sixty-five."
"No one has the power to say when our productivity must end," she says, pulling farther away from me. My arm falls to my side. "They can only refuse to accept the fruits of our productivity. That doesn't mean we have to stop being useful just cause they say so. We have our own society here, Ben. It's not as big as theirs, and it's sure as hell not as rich. But it's ours."
I sit quiet for a minute, listening to the echo of her words and the rasp of her breathing. I don't want to argue with her. "Why do you care," I ask softly. "We've known each other less than a day, now. What difference does it make to you whether I stay or go?"
"To be honest with you, I always care. My curse, I guess. That's part of the reason why it's my job to meet the new people coming in, like I met you yesterday."
"So I'm just part of the job?"
She digs her knuckles gently into my stomach and laughs softly. "Digging for compliments, uh? Well the other reason I got the job is because I'm good at seeing what's inside people. We don't let just anyone move into the camp, you know."
"And you think I'm worth saving, is that it?"
"There's something special in you, Ben. I don't know what it is, and I'm not sure how to get at it, but I know damn well it's there."
"I'm afraid you're wrong this time, Myrtle. There's nothing in here but an old man. A very tired old man."
"It's there, all right. But it's going to take two things to bring it out -- courage and strength. You've already shown you got guts, Ben. Not going to the Clinic two days ago, even though everything you'd heard all your life told you that was the thing to do. Walking the streets all night. Even coming to our camp. You've got the guts, all right. Now you just have to find the strength."
"You've lived long enough to know the answer to that one, Ben. Real strength can never come from outside a person."
"And if I don't have that much strength? What then?"
She leans into me, laying her head back onto my chest. My arm, almost with a will of its own, encircles her shoulders. "It takes a lot of strength to decide to stay here forever, Ben. It takes less to decide to stay one day at a time."
"I'll think about it, ok?" I say. Then, "Do you want to go back inside now?"
She waggles her head against my chest. "It's usually better if I don't lay down too soon," she says. "Besides, I'd like to sit here and listen to the stars for a while."
I smile at the top of her head, somehow knowing she's talking about the quiet of the night. Brief minutes later, I sense her breathing deepen, regulating itself into the rhythms of sleep. I slowly and gently shift myself the few inches it takes to settle my back against the side of the crate.
These people are not what I expected. They live in a squalor I could not have imagined a week ago, a filth their poverty and multitude makes inevitable and inescapable. They awake to face each day on empty stomachs, with no assurance the emptiness will see relief before they return to their makeshift beds at night. They know a broken bone can cripple them, a simple fever can kill them. And yet, in spite of the obvious hopelessness, they continue to struggle. Don't they know the battle has been lost, the war decided?
To my left, just out of reach, lies Myrtle's pile of belongings, the few tattered books lying amidst the cracked dishes. I've probably lived much of my life within the pages of books, within the tombs of history and literature. Not a bad place to abide, I think. That this strange woman resting in my arms would include books among the scant items she owns doesn't surprise me. I want to reach out and touch her books, to run my fingers over the titles of her few volumes, to perhaps discover some of the secrets revealed by her choices.
There was another book once. It's not in Myrtle's collection, not in anyone's collection, though the manuscript still sits in my bottom desk drawer. Unless Robin has already cleaned out my apartment, already burnt my papers.
"I appreciate you having lunch with me, Susan, especially on such short notice. I didn't know I was going to be in New York until just a few days ago."
She smiled at me across the table, her dark eyes rising from the menu. "No problem, Ben. We always like to meet promising new writers." Susan Sarog was a senior editor with Warner & Doubleday, and she had held my manuscript for over six months. The novel, Chicago Fire, was a historical romance set in the early Twentieth Century. I was fifty-one years old.
"Does that mean you like my book?" I asked. Before she could answer the waiter arrived, a tall Asian with long black hair. Susan ordered the spinach salad, a little too daring for my tastes. I asked for the cobb salad, thousand island on the side.
"The book is good, Ben. Very well written. And the historical setting feels remarkably authentic, better than anything I've seen in a long time."
"Thank you," I said, trying hard not to grin. "Does that mean you'll be able to publish it? " Chicago Fire was my ticket out of teaching, a dream that had taken four years of late nights and long weekends to write.
"Well, to be honest, there are some problems with the book, Ben."
I took a deep drink of water. "Like what?" I asked.
"Well, for example the historical background is really good like I said, but in some places there's just too much of it. It bogs down the pace and almost sounds like a text book instead of a romance."
"Ok," I said, trying to sound professionally dispassionate, "you show me the places you mean and I'll do the cutting."
"Actually, Ben, it's pretty consistent through the whole book. Just too much of a good thing. Unfortunately, I think if you cut everything that doesn't actually move the story, we're going to end up with about a hundred pages."
I took another drink, but the cold water didn't seem to help with my dry mouth.
"What exactly are you saying, Susan?" I should have known better than to write a romance, no matter what the market said was selling. In the twenty years since Ann had left me for the last time, my life had become my work. There was little desire and no time for dating, for the social dancing around necessary to meet new people. I knew history, but what did I know of romance?
Our salads arrived and the waiter hustled from one side of our table to the other positioning the various plates and bowls. I stared at my water glass, thinking perhaps I should order something a little stronger. I didn't notice until the waiter disappeared that he had brought me Roquefort dressing.
"Your characters are all well-rounded, Ben, very sympathetic and believable. Your language is clear and clean, even powerful in spots. You seem to be able to do anything you want, create any effect you need. You have to realize we don't spend much time with new writers unless we feel they show real promise. You show that kind of promise, Ben."
"The story is just too thin. Ok, you've got some conflict, and we could even stretch it and call it plot. But that's not story. It's like you didn't invest anything in the book, nothing of yourself at least. If you don't care about the story, Ben, the reader won't either."
I drain my water glass and set the empty glass next to my salad. "There's nothing I can do to fix it?"
"Well, I guess that would be up to you. I can tell you, from experience, that it wouldn't be easy. You can go back with a book and plug in new scenes, plug in new characters, but it's harder than hell to plug in meaning. My advice would be to just consider this one a learning experience. I'd love to see your next try, Ben."
Lost in my memories, I don't notice Jacob until he's squatting next me. The sky is beginning to brighten, hiding the stars for another day, but the temperature has dropped ten degrees in the past hour. It's cold. Jacob indicates Myrtle with his head, then nods toward the empty crate. Together, we gently ease her into her home and cover her against the cold.
Jacob wears baggy jeans and a thin undershirt, his slender arms and shoulders naked to the morning air, small veins standing out darkly against his pale skin. "Aren't you cold?" I ask.
"Been colder," he says, his breath turning to fog. "Let's walk a while."
He leads me through the maze of huts, walking single file along the narrow path, occasionally nodding to people he knows. We emerge from the camp to the street, facing the Bonaventure, returning to the same spot where I entered twenty-four hours ago. He walks into the street, stopping after just a few feet, stretches, takes a deeper breath, and surveys the surrounding city as if it were his friend instead of his enemy.
"There was someone sleeping over there yesterday," I say, nodding toward the door of the Bonaventure.
"That'd be Smitty. He doesn't like too many people around." I nod, pretending to understand. Then, "You like Myrtle, Ben?" I nod silently again, confused by the direction of the conversation.
"None of my business, of course. But Myrtle seems to trust you. Some folk around here think she trusts too easy. Some wouldn't want to see her get hurt cause of it."
"But you don't see it that way, do you, Jacob?" I say. He turns his eyes from the skyline and looks hard into my face. I swear he almost smiles at me and I know I've guessed right.
"I've known Myrtle close to twenty years, I suppose," he says, starting to slowly walk down the center of the wide street. I fall in beside him. "She's tougher than most people think. And she's hardly ever wrong about people, though I'll be damned if I know how she does it. Some of the others wanted me to talk to you and I said I'd do it. But, truth is, if Myrtle trusts you then I do, too."
"Thanks," I say. "She's a special woman. "
"Myrtle also says you got problems, though. Says you might not stay?"
"I told her I'd think about it." We reach the corner and turn left, following another leg of the camp. Ahead, down the block, I see the rusty pail sitting ten feet from the curb.
"That was a good story you told last night," he says after a moment.
"It shows you're a thinking man, Ben. You got a head on your shoulders when you want to use it. You could be a big help around here."
"Doing what?" I ask. "Telling stories?"
"That's more important than you make it sound. Sometimes spending half an hour a day not having to think about your life helps people keep on going. Yea, you could tell stories. And other things, too."
We pass the rusty bucket, walking in silence. Another left turn, another leg of the camp. "What other things?" I ask.
"How many of us do you figure there are, Ben? Not just in this camp. Across the whole city?"
I run the numbers through my head for a minute, figuring eighty percent of all new retirees opt for the Clinic, then take a wild stab. "Two million. Maybe two and a half. Double that if you include Orange County."
"More'n I thought," he says, nodding his head. "What if all those people got together, Ben?"
"Couldn't happen," I say. "The city ignores us now, but only because they don't know what else to do with us. The Clinics are supposed to be voluntary, but you get that many oldsters together and that just might change."
"I don't mean get them together physically. I was thinking more along the lines of a republic. Each camp sends one or two people to speak for them. Like the Greeks used to do."
I nod, thinking, as we again turn left at a corner. "From what I've seen on the vid, and what Myrtle says, too, it'd be dangerous trying to set something like that up. Not all the camps are as peaceful as this one. Beside, Jacob, what would it accomplish? You going to raise an army of old people?"
"We could print our own money."
"What?" I say, certain I heard him wrong.
"What you said last night got me thinking. Our biggest problem is that we're cut off from the rest of the world's economy. They've got CashCards and we don't, plain and simple. There's a bit of black market bartering going on, but it's not organized and we can't control it. But if we had our own money, and all the camps agreed to accept it, we could build our own economy."
"And buy and sell what, Jacob? Rags? Cardboard? An economy is based on supply and demand and we've got damn few supplies around here."
"True enough, now. But a little free enterprise could change that. If I had a million dollars -- and we both agreed it was worth a million dollars -- don't you think you could find something to sell me? Maybe you'd cut your sleeping area in half and grow vegetables in the rest. Or maybe you'd sit around all day and weave cardboard into something more useful. I don't know, but I'll bet you'd try to figure out something to get a chunk of that million dollars."
"And then what?"
"We need to get organized, Ben. Clean things up and start building again. We got good people here, they just don't know what to do with their tomorrows. We could make a fresh start, putting together something better than what we left behind. Money would be just a beginning."
"You'd need printing presses," I say. "And paper. Ink. And you'd have to figure out a way to prevent counterfeiting. Distribution. A bank. It wouldn't be easy, probably not possible."
"Details," says Jacob.
We approach the next corner, the Bonaventure again within sight before us. The sun is reaching higher, and the first few cars zip along the streets. I notice that the few huts overflowing into the streets during the night have been moved back into the park.
"The first step would be getting other camps to agree," I point out. "Each would have to get a share of the pie to make it work, and even then you'd have a hell of time convincing most of them. That's if they'd even talk to you. Are you willing to walk into a strange camp, knowing they're liable to hit you over the head just for the shirt off your back?"
"I might be," he says, stepping back into the pathways of the camp. "How about you?"
I'm surprised to find myself actually considering it. Does a man already prepared for death really have anything to lose? "I'll think about it," I say. Jacob turns on the path and briefly locks those hard eyes of his on me again. He nods, apparently finding what he's looking for. And he actually does smile at me.
Myrtle sits at the entrance to the crate when we return, Dorothy's huge bulk at her side. Her face seems to light up when she sees Jacob and me, the deep lines settling into a bright smile. "Glad you made it back," she says.
"Hi, Ben," says Dorothy. "We gonna have a story tonight?"
"Yea," I say, my smile directed at Myrtle. "Yea, there'll be a story tonight."