Everything was perfectly swell.
There were no prisons, no slums, no
insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.
All diseases were conquered. So was old age.
Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.
The population of the United States
was stabilized at forty-million souls.
One bright morning in the Chicago
Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling,
Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was
the only man waiting. Not many people were born
a day any more.
Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling
in a population whose average age was one hundred
X-rays had revealed that his wife
was going to have triplets. The children would
be his first.
Young Wehling was hunched in his chair,
his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still
and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His
camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had
a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs
and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls.
The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.
The room was being redecorated.
It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who
had volunteered to die.
A sardonic old man, about two hundred
years old, sat on a stepladder, painting a mural he
did not like. Back in the days when people aged
visibly, his age would have been guessed at thirty-five
or so. Aging had touched him that much before
the cure for aging was found.
The mural he was working on depicted
a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors
and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed
bugs, spread fertilizer.
Men and women in purple uniforms pulled
up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly,
raked leaves, carried refuse to trash-burners.
Never, never, never not
even in medieval Holland nor old Japan had
a garden been more formal, been better tended.
Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air and
nourishment it could use.
A hospital orderly came down the corridor,
singing under his breath a popular song:
If you don’t like
my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I
I’ll go see a
girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world
If you don’t want
Why should I take up
all this space?
I’ll get off this
Let some sweet baby
have my place.
The orderly looked in at the mural
and the muralist. “Looks so real,”
he said, “I can practically imagine I’m
standing in the middle of it.”
“What makes you think you’re
not in it?” said the painter. He gave a
satiric smile. “It’s called ‘The
Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”
“That’s good of Dr. Hitz,” said
He was referring to one of the male
figures in white, whose head was a portrait of Dr.
Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician.
Hitz was a blindingly handsome man.
“Lot of faces still to fill
in,” said the orderly. He meant that the
faces of many of the figures in the mural were still
blank. All blanks were to be filled with portraits
of important people on either the hospital staff or
from the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Termination.
“Must be nice to be able to
make pictures that look like something,” said
The painter’s face curdled with
scorn. “You think I’m proud of this
daub?” he said. “You think this is
my idea of what life really looks like?”
“What’s your idea of what
life looks like?” said the orderly.
The painter gestured at a foul dropcloth.
“There’s a good picture of it,”
he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have
a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.”
“You’re a gloomy old duck, aren’t
you?” said the orderly.
“Is that a crime?” said the painter.
The orderly shrugged. “If
you don’t like it here, Grandpa ”
he said, and he finished the thought with the trick
telephone number that people who didn’t want
to live any more were supposed to call. The zero
in the telephone number he pronounced “naught.”
The number was: “2 B R 0 2 B.”
It was the telephone number of an
institution whose fanciful sobriquets included:
“Automat,” “Birdland,” “Cannery,”
“Catbox,” “De-louser,” “Easy-go,”
“Good-by, Mother,” “Happy Hooligan,”
“Kiss-me-quick,” “Lucky Pierre,”
“Sheepdip,” “Waring Blendor,”
“Weep-no-more” and “Why Worry?”
“To be or not to be” was
the telephone number of the municipal gas chambers
of the Federal Bureau of Termination.
The painter thumbed his nose at the
orderly. “When I decide it’s time
to go,” he said, “it won’t be at
“A do-it-yourselfer, eh?”
said the orderly. “Messy business, Grandpa.
Why don’t you have a little consideration for
the people who have to clean up after you?”
The painter expressed with an obscenity
his lack of concern for the tribulations of his survivors.
“The world could do with a good deal more mess,
if you ask me,” he said.
The orderly laughed and moved on.
Wehling, the waiting father, mumbled something without
raising his head.
And then he fell silent again.
A coarse, formidable woman strode
into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes,
stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all
purple, the purple the painter called “the color
of grapes on Judgment Day.”
The medallion on her purple musette
bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal
Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.
The woman had a lot of facial hair an
unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing
about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how
lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they
all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.
“Is this where I’m supposed
to come?” she said to the painter.
“A lot would depend on what
your business was,” he said. “You
aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”
“They told me I was supposed
to pose for some picture,” she said. “My
name’s Leora Duncan.” She waited.
“And you dunk people,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“Skip it,” he said.
“That sure is a beautiful picture,”
she said. “Looks just like heaven or something.”
“Or something,” said the
painter. He took a list of names from his smock
pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,”
he said, scanning the list. “Yes here
you are. You’re entitled to be immortalized.
See any faceless body here you’d like me to
stick your head on? We’ve got a few choice
She studied the mural bleakly.
“Gee,” she said, “they’re all
the same to me. I don’t know anything about
“A body’s a body, eh?”
he said, “All righty. As a master of fine
art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated
a faceless figure of a woman who was carrying dried
stalks to a trash-burner.
“Well,” said Leora Duncan,
“that’s more the disposal people, isn’t
it? I mean, I’m in service. I don’t
do any disposing.”
The painter clapped his hands in mock
delight. “You say you don’t know
anything about art, and then you prove in the next
breath that you know more about it than I do!
Of course the sheave-carrier is wrong for a hostess!
A snipper, a pruner that’s more your
line.” He pointed to a figure in purple
who was sawing a dead branch from an apple tree.
“How about her?” he said. “You
like her at all?”
“Gosh ” she
said, and she blushed and became humble “that that
puts me right next to Dr. Hitz.”
“That upsets you?” he said.
“Good gravy, no!” she said. “It’s it’s
just such an honor.”
“Ah, You admire him, eh?” he said.
“Who doesn’t admire him?”
she said, worshiping the portrait of Hitz. It
was the portrait of a tanned, white-haired, omnipotent
Zeus, two hundred and forty years old. “Who
doesn’t admire him?” she said again.
“He was responsible for setting up the very
first gas chamber in Chicago.”
“Nothing would please me more,”
said the painter, “than to put you next to him
for all time. Sawing off a limb that
strikes you as appropriate?”
“That is kind of like what I
do,” she said. She was demure about what
she did. What she did was make people comfortable
while she killed them.
And, while Leora Duncan was posing
for her portrait, into the waitingroom bounded Dr.
Hitz himself. He was seven feet tall, and he
boomed with importance, accomplishments, and the joy
“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss
Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What
are you doing here?” he said. “This
isn’t where the people leave. This is where
they come in!”
“We’re going to be in
the same picture together,” she said shyly.
“Good!” said Dr. Hitz
heartily. “And, say, isn’t that some
“I sure am honored to be in it with you,”
“Let me tell you,” he
said, “I’m honored to be in it with you.
Without women like you, this wonderful world we’ve
got wouldn’t be possible.”
He saluted her and moved toward the
door that led to the delivery rooms. “Guess
what was just born,” he said.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Triplets!” he said.
“Triplets!” she said.
She was exclaiming over the legal implications of
The law said that no newborn child
could survive unless the parents of the child could
find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets,
if they were all to live, called for three volunteers.
“Do the parents have three volunteers?”
said Leora Duncan.
“Last I heard,” said Dr.
Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to scrape
another two up.”
“I don’t think they made
it,” she said. “Nobody made three
appointments with us. Nothing but singles going
through today, unless somebody called in after I left.
What’s the name?”
“Wehling,” said the waiting
father, sitting up, red-eyed and frowzy. “Edward
K. Wehling, Jr., is the name of the happy father-to-be.”
He raised his right hand, looked at
a spot on the wall, gave a hoarsely wretched chuckle.
“Present,” he said.
“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz, “I
didn’t see you.”
“The invisible man,” said Wehling.
“They just phoned me that your
triplets have been born,” said Dr. Hitz.
“They’re all fine, and so is the mother.
I’m on my way in to see them now.”
“Hooray,” said Wehling emptily.
“You don’t sound very happy,” said
“What man in my shoes wouldn’t
be happy?” said Wehling. He gestured with
his hands to symbolize care-free simplicity. “All
I have to do is pick out which one of the triplets
is going to live, then deliver my maternal grandfather
to the Happy Hooligan, and come back here with a receipt.”
Dr. Hitz became rather severe with
Wehling, towered over him. “You don’t
believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?”
“I think it’s perfectly keen,” said
“Would you like to go back to
the good old days, when the population of the Earth
was twenty billion about to become forty
billion, then eighty billion, then one hundred and
sixty billion? Do you know what a drupelet is,
Mr. Wehling?” said Hitz.
“Nope,” said Wehling sulkily.
“A drupelet, Mr. Wehling, is
one of the little knobs, one of the little pulpy grains
of a blackberry,” said Dr. Hitz. “Without
population control, human beings would now be packed
on this surface of this old planet like drupelets
on a blackberry! Think of it!”
Wehling continued to stare at the same spot on the
“In the year 2000,” said
Dr. Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and
laid down the law, there wasn’t even enough drinking
water to go around, and nothing to eat but sea-weed and
still people insisted on their right to reproduce
like jackrabbits. And their right, if possible,
to live forever.”
“I want those kids,” said
Wehling quietly. “I want all three of them.”
“Of course you do,” said Dr. Hitz.
“That’s only human.”
“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,”
“Nobody’s really happy
about taking a close relative to the Catbox,”
said Dr. Hitz gently, sympathetically.
“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,”
said Leora Duncan.
“What?” said Dr. Hitz.
“I wish people wouldn’t
call it ‘the Catbox,’ and things like that,”
she said. “It gives people the wrong impression.”
“You’re absolutely right,”
said Dr. Hitz. “Forgive me.”
He corrected himself, gave the municipal gas chambers
their official title, a title no one ever used in
conversation. “I should have said, ’Ethical
Suicide Studios,’” he said.
“That sounds so much better,” said Leora
“This child of yours whichever
one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr.
Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy,
roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control.
In a garden like that mural there.” He
shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when
I was a young man, it was a hell that nobody thought
could last another twenty years. Now centuries
of peace and plenty stretch before us as far as the
imagination cares to travel.”
He smiled luminously.
The smile faded as he saw that Wehling had just drawn
Wehling shot Dr. Hitz dead. “There’s
room for one a great big one,” he
And then he shot Leora Duncan.
“It’s only death,” he said to her
as she fell. “There! Room for two.”
And then he shot himself, making room
for all three of his children.
Nobody came running. Nobody, seemingly, heard
The painter sat on the top of his
stepladder, looking down reflectively on the sorry
The painter pondered the mournful
puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born,
demanding to be fruitful ... to multiply and to live
as long as possible to do all that on a
very small planet that would have to last forever.
All the answers that the painter could
think of were grim. Even grimmer, surely, than
a Catbox, a Happy Hooligan, an Easy Go. He thought
of war. He thought of plague. He thought
He knew that he would never paint
again. He let his paintbrush fall to the dropcloths
below. And then he decided he had had about enough
of life in the Happy Garden of Life, too, and he came
slowly down from the ladder.
He took Wehling’s pistol, really
intending to shoot himself.
But he didn’t have the nerve.
And then he saw the telephone booth
in the corner of the room. He went to it, dialed
the well-remembered number: “2 B R 0 2 B.”
“Federal Bureau of Termination,”
said the very warm voice of a hostess.
“How soon could I get an appointment?”
he asked, speaking very carefully.
“We could probably fit you in
late this afternoon, sir,” she said. “It
might even be earlier, if we get a cancellation.”
“All right,” said the
painter, “fit me in, if you please.”
And he gave her his name, spelling it out.
“Thank you, sir,” said
the hostess. “Your city thanks you; your
country thanks you; your planet thanks you. But
the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.”