Mr. Wehling waited in the hospital as his wife gave birth to 3 healthy babies. Triplets. It should be the happiest day of his life, but it isn’t. It’s far from happy.
Everything was perfect.
There were no prisons.
There were no poor neighborhoods.
There were no disabilities.
No illness, no poverty, no war.
All diseases had been conquered. Old age was not a fear.
Death (except for accidents) was only for volunteers.
The population of the United States had been stabilized. The number was set at forty million souls.
One bright morning, in a Chicago hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many babies were born nowadays.
Wehling was fifty six years old. He was quite young compared to the average age of one hundred and twenty-nine.
This was the first time for Wehling to have children, and the X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets.
He was hunched in his chair with his head in his hands. He was so still and colorless that he was almost invisible. The waiting room was as disorderly and shabby as he was. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was covered with drop cloths that were splattered with paint. The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die. A grumpy 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, he would have looked about thirty-five or so. That must have been his age when 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 seeds, sprayed insects and spread fertilizer. Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves and carried trash to the recycle bins.
Never, never, never—not even in medieval Holland or old Japan—had a garden been more formal and better tended. Every plant had all the soil, light, water, air and nourishment it could use.
A hospital worker came down the hall, singing a popular song:
If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I’ll try:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world goodbye.
If you don’t want my love,
I won’t take up this space,
I’ll get off this planet
And let a baby have my place.
The worker looked in the room and said to the painter: “Looks so real. I can practically imagine that I’m standing in the middle of it.”
“Maybe you are standing in it,” said the painter. He gave a sly smile. “It’s called ‘The Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”
“The man in the center looks just like Dr. Hitz,” said the worker.
He was talking about one of the men in white. Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician. Hitz was a blindingly handsome man.
“Lots of faces still to fill in,” said the worker. He meant that the faces of many of the figures were still blank. All blank faces were to be filled with portraits of important people on either the hospital staff or from the Chicago Office of Termination.
“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look real,” said the worker.
The painter’s face curdled with anger. “You think I’m proud of this mural?” he said. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”
“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” asked the worker.
The painter gestured down at the dirty drop cloth on the floor. “There’s a good picture of it! That’s exactly what life looks like,” he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have a damn picture that’s more honest than this mural.”
“You’re a gloomy old duck, aren’t you?” said the worker.
“Is that a crime?” said the painter.
The worker shrugged. “If you don’t like it here, old man,“ he said, “2 B R 0 2 B.”
The number was a phone number for a hotline. People who didn’t want to live anymore were supposed to call it. The zero in the middle was pronounced “nought.”
Wehling’s father told him of a famous quote written by a playwright called “Shakespeare” in era long ago. “To be or not to be.” Wehling hardly understood the meaning of it, but either way, the telephone number was for the Termination Chamber.
The painter thumbed his nose. “When I decide to die,” he said, “it won’t be at that slaughter house.”
“A DIY man, eh?” said the worker. “That’s messy business, old man. Why don’t you have a little consideration for the people who have to clean up after you when you’re dead?”
The painter showed no concern in his expression. “The world needs a little more mess, if you ask me,” he said.
The worker laughed and moved on down the hall.
Wehling, the waiting father, mumbled something without raising his head. And then, he fell silent again.
A tough looking woman came into the waiting room with high-heeled shoes. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and cap were all purple. The painter thought of it as “the color of grapes on Judgement Day.”
The medallion on her purple bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Office of Termination. An eagle.
The woman had some facial hair—an unmistakable mustache, in fact. It was strange that these hostesses (no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited) all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.
“Is this the right place?” she asked the painter.
“It depends on what your business is,” he said. “You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”
“They told me I was supposed to pose for a picture,” she said. “My name is Leora Duncan.” She waited.
“And what are you dunking?” he joked.
“That sure is a beautiful picture,” she said. “It looks just like heaven or something.”
“Or something,” said the painter. He took out a list of names from his smock pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,” he said, scanning the list. “Yes—here you are. You’re entitled to having your picture taken. Do you see any faceless body here that you’d like me to stick your head on? We’ve got a few good ones left.”
She studied the mural. “Well,” she said, “they’re all the same. I don’t know anything about art.”
“A body is a body, eh?” he said. “All right. As a master of fine art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated a faceless figure of a woman who was carrying trash.
“Well,” said Leora Duncan, “that’s a disposal person, 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 that you know more about it than I do! Of course, the trash lady is wrong for a hostess! A snipper, a pruner—that’s closer to 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. “That… that puts me right next to Dr. Hitz.”
“That upsets you?” he asked.
“Oh goodness, no!” she said. “It’s just such an honor.”
“Ah, you… 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 Termination Chamber in Chicago.
“Nothing would please me more,” said the painter with a fake smile, “than to paint you next to him for all time. Sawing off the limb of a tree, is that right?”
“That is kind of like my job,” she said. She was desensitized to her work. Her job was to make people feel comfortable while she terminated their lives.
And, while Leora Duncan was posing for her portrait, Dr. Hitz himself came into the waiting room. He was seven feel tall, and he boomed with importance, accomplishments, and the joy of living.
“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What are you doing here? This isn’t where people are terminated! This is where they are created!”
“We’re going to be in the same picture together,” she said shyly.
“Good!” said Dr. Hitz heartily. “And say, isn’t that a wonderful picture?”
“I am so honored to be in it with you,” she said.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “I’m honored to be in it with you. Without women like you, this wonderful world we have 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 to her.
“What was it?” she asked.
“Triplets!” he said.
“Triplets!” she repeated. She was already thinking about the legal implication of triplets.
The law said that no newborn baby could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets, if they were all allowed to live, needed three volunteers.
“Do the parents have three volunteers?” asked Leora Duncan.
“Last I heard,” said Dr. Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to find another two.”
“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 with red eyes. “Edward K. Wehling is the name of the happy father-to-be.” He raised his right hand, looked at a spot on the wall, and gave a hoarse chuckle. “Present,” he said.
“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz, “I didn’t see you.”
“The invisible man,” said Wehling.
“They just called to say that your triplets have been born,” said Dr. Hitz. “They’re all fine, and so is the mother. I’m on my way to see them now.”
“Hooray,” said Wehling emptily.
“You don’t sound very happy,” said Dr. Hitz.
“Oh, of course I’m happy!” said Wehling. He opened his arms wide to show that he was care-free, but his expression was hard. “I simply have to pick out which one of my triplets is going to live and which two will be terminated. Then, I’ll deliver my grandfather to the slaughter house and come back here with a receipt of death.”
Dr. Hitz’s face became dark. He walked over to Wehling and towered over him. “You don’t believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?”
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Wehling, spitting the words.
“Would you like to go back to the 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 dryly.
“A drupelet is one of the little knobs of a blackberry, or a raspberry,” said Dr. Hitz. “Without population control, human beings would now be packed on this planet like drupelets on a blackberry! Think of that!”
Wehling continued to stare at the same spot on the wall.
“In the year 2054,” said Dr. Hitz, “before scientists stepped in to make population laws, there wasn’t even enough drinking water to go around, and nothing to eat but insects—and people still insisted on their right to reproduce like rabbits. And at the same time, they wanted to keep their right 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 the way your human brain works.”
“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,” said Wehling.
“Nobody’s really happy about taking a relative to the slaughter house,” 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 slaughter house’ and things like that,” she said. “It gives people the wrong impression.”
“You’re absolutely right,” said Dr. Hitz. “Forgive me.” He corrected himself. He gave it the official title. A title that no one ever used in conversation. “I should have said, ‘Ethical Suicide Studios,’” he said.
“That sounds so much better,” said Leora Duncan.
“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 this mural here.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, this planet was a hell that nobody thought would last another twenty years. Now, centuries of peace and richness will continue.”
Dr. Hitz smiled brightly.
The smile fell when he saw what Wehling had pulled from his jacket pocket. A gun.
Wehling shot Dr. Hitz in the chest, and the doctor fell to the ground, over the paint-splattered drop cloth. Dead.
“Good,” said Wehling. “Now there’s room for one more baby.”
And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Now there is room for two!”
And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.
Nobody came running. Nobody, seemingly, heard the shots.
The painter sat on the top of his stepladder, looking down on the sorry scene. He pondered the puzzle of life. Humans demand to be born. And once born, they demand to be fruitful, to multiply, and to live as long as possible, on a planet that will last forever.
All the thoughts that the painter could think were grim. Even grimmer than a slaughter house.
He thought of war. He thought of a plague. He thought of starvation.
He decided that he would never paint again. He let his paintbrush fall to the drop cloths below, where the paint mixed with blood.
He decided that he was done with the Happy Garden of Life. He was done with his own life. He came down slowly from the ladder.
He picked up Wehling’s pistol, really intending to shoot himself.
But he didn’t have the nerve.
And then, he saw the telephone in the corner of the room. He went to it and dialed: 2 B R 0 2 B.
“Federal Office of Termination,” said a 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 be even earlier, if we get a cancellation.”
“All right,” said the painter, “fit me in, 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.”
About this story:
This story, “2 B R 0 2 B,” was originally written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and published in a sci-fi magazine called “Worlds of If” in 1962. It is in the public domain. It is rewritten here for Level 3 English learners.