Volume 22, Number 4

No. 117

John Vanderslice

Bloom would have liked to be taller. That’s what he told me, the last stain of syrup lingering below his lower lip. “It’s bad enough that I can’t stop my hand from shaking, that I can’t hear without this thing inside me.” He touched his right ear, where a year and a half earlier an artificial cochlea had been implanted. “And my hip hurts so bad I can’t think of anything else. I know I’m old. But it would be easier—I mean, I would have loved it—if when I was younger, I could have really been young.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard these complaints. For the entire fourteen months I’d known him, Bloom had railed against the array of stepladders distributed around the house, calling them “degrading,” calling them “patronizing.” But at this point, they shouldn’t have mattered anymore. He hadn’t been able to manage a stepladder for weeks. Or cross his bedroom without a walker. I’d seen a wheelchair in the hallway downstairs when Carl, the in-home aide, ushered me inside. I asked Bloom’s mother about it. She said it was just a precaution. They needed to be ready, she said, in case he lived another month.

I lifted the bottle from the little table set between his chair and mine and poured him a fresh glass of syrup. I’d brought the syrup myself. It was an elixir I knew he preferred. He liked the way it made his skeleton feel. But it was a brand they didn’t keep in the pantry at Château Cardon. I stood up, took the old glass from his hand, and replaced it with the new. Bloom’s eyes widened with surprise, as if he’d forgotten the syrup was even in the room, even a part of this conversation. It occurred to me that maybe I should have asked Carl to fetch us some coffee, to counteract the less subtle effects of the syrup. But no; I didn’t want to do that, did I? On an earlier visit maybe. But not this one.

I could see how hard it was for Bloom to keep his focus, to even keep his eyes open and his chin off his chest. And when his eyes were open it was hard to ignore the floating atolls of watery red, little lagoons of rage and age and pain. Listlessness and regret. I wondered if in another hour he’d be able to lift the juice glass at all, much less his head.

I felt bad for Bloom—truly I did. After all, didn’t I make the effort to come here, two or three times a week? It was my boss who hooked us up at first and insisted I keep visiting him—we want some influence with this guy, he said, winking; and with that family—but it still cost me the effort, didn’t it? It was still me who had to give up the hour, when there might be dozens of others ways I’d rather spend my time. Where were Bloom’s brothers, after all? Where were the neighbors he’d grown up with? Where were all his admirers from five years ago? Where was the Vice President? Wasn’t it me who told Carl to lift Bloom’s 46-inch frame out of the bed and set him up in the sitting room, so we could speak face-to-face, host-to-visitor; not invalid to voyeur? Didn’t I tell Carl to leave us alone to spare Bloom the aide’s hovering presence? Whenever I came, didn’t I always stay the full sixty minutes, or more, listening to his bilious jeremiads, his age-old wishes, his repeated, too familiar accusations? Back at the office, I had an afternoon’s worth of documents stored on my computer that I simply had to complete. The load got no smaller just because I ignored it; in fact, I tend to think it got larger. But I wasn’t in the office, was I Bloom, completing the work expected of me before I could go home? I was at Château Cardon, in the sitting room outside your chambers. Did you ever consider the burden your condition placed on everyone else’s life? No, I didn’t think so. Not one time.

Still, as much as I felt for Bloom, it was difficult, almost too difficult, to avoid the obvious, to not just come out and say it to him: He’d already lived longer than the other one hundred and sixteen. He’d lived years longer than Kylie Jamison, who died the day after she turned twelve. That had been early, yes, earlier than expected. But even so, the mean lifespan for the other one hundred and sixteen was something like thirteen years, eleven months. Bloom had turned fifteen two days ago. But I held my tongue and instead of pointing out the obvious, I asked him a question. “What did they tell you when it started?” Of course, I already knew the answer.

He looked at me dizzily, as if he couldn’t find me, but then I saw that it was the memory he needed to find. Black syrup was not the best thing for him to be drinking, despite how it made his joints feel.

“It started before I was born,” he said.

“Of course it did. But you know what I mean.”

“They said it was the only way around the overcrowding.”

“And nothing’s disproved that.”

“Nothing’s proved it.”

Did I really need to recite for him the number of committees and consultants and task forces assigned to this project? The number of studies conducted and reports written? The thousands of man-hours and millions of federal dollars invested? The paucity of politically feasible recommendations?

“They’re certainly acting liked it’s proved,” I said. “They’re tearing down all the old apartments and office buildings along the east coast—and all the old houses like this one. They’re putting up hives as fast as they can. To get ready.”

“Ready,” Bloom said.

“You know that as long as any of you are still alive—until the experiment is finished and all the data has been analyzed—they can’t start any more injections. They’re waiting. And they’re willing to wait. But once those injections start, we all need to be ready.”

He nodded, but in the way one does when humoring a child. That made me hot. I’m not proud of my reaction, but realize it was the only time that whole afternoon I let my temper alter my words. And even so the words were true.

“Bloom, they say the housing capacity in this city could double in ten years if they’re only permitted to build hives. Forget about the crowding. Do you know what that could mean to getting rid of pestilence? STDs? Homelessness? Crime?”

He took another sip. “Well, if they say it, I guess it must be so.” His voice sounded sopping and ironic at the same time, a whisper forced through mud.

I didn’t feel like being merciful any more. I’ll never deny the involuntary nature of his contribution—who could—but, fact was, he’d gotten his due. He’d gotten and gotten and gotten. He’d been written up in a hundred articles. He’d appeared on every news network known to man. He’d visited the White House and the UN, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the Bundeskanzleramt and No. 10 Downing. He’d received the Medal of Honor. This mansion he lived in was something robber barons might dream of—what with the staff and the garage and the pool and the Great Hall and the sixteen bedrooms and the multi-level kitchens and the bowling alley and the in-home theatre. Add to that the two acres of grass in front, the eight foot tall security fence, the array of cameras both inside and out and a battalion of crack guards: all of which guaranteed the rabble surging and sweating and sometimes dying along the sidewalk would stay there. Per the original agreement with the government, Bloom’s mother was assured robber baron income for as long as she lived. She could take courses at any university in the country without cost or question. She could dial up the President for a favor. For his part, Bloom had only been granted admittance to the prep school of his choice at age two; to the college of his choice at three and a half; to graduate school at five. By age nine, when my son—born the same month as Bloom—still struggled to tie his shoes, Bloom was lionized across the world for his expertise on pandemic immunology. He’d never lived in an apartment. He’d never lived in a group house. He’d never lived in a tent on the street. He’d never lived in a cardboard box. He was—by law—guaranteed access to any medical facility in the country at any time. This latter benefit, by the way, extended to his mother too and his two larger (I won’t say older) brothers. How many of his countrymen—my countrymen—are guaranteed exactly nothing when they are born?

I saw at the far corner of the room, where two sides of the ceiling met, the eye of the security camera scrutinizing me. I looked right at it and said, “I thought they told you the length up front.”

Bloom glowered. “I was probably a year old.”

“Well,” I said, retrenching inside the obvious, “a year is different for you.”

He waved his hand, as if I would never understand. I thought he was going to say something else, but then he didn’t.

“And what did they tell you? I mean about the length.”

He hesitated. “Thirteen or fourteen years.”

“There you go,” I said.

“Go where?”

“Well, look.” I wasn’t going to let him trap me. I’d visited him. I’d poured him black syrup. I’d listened to his griping. And now I kept control of my tone. I remembered my purpose. This is something I am good at. “Look at it this way. Think of all the things you got to do before the other kids. Hawaii. France. Graduate school. The CDC. Think of all you learned, what you were able to comprehend before they did. Think of how rich your life has been.” I did not mean that last sentence ironically.

Bloom stared into his glass. From my angle, I couldn’t see his eyes. I wondered if he’d fallen asleep on me. Or died. Then I saw his hand move. I started talking.

“What did you think of it all?” I continued. “The experiment. The whole idea. When they first told you.” I wanted to make my point without having to make my point. Bloom was smart enough. He’d get the message. From the very beginning you knew the end.

Bloom’s head came up; his jaws snapped once or twice as if to build up momentum for a rant. “What did I think? What do you expect me to think? I was one year old. Age fourteen seemed centuries away. I couldn’t imagine living to fourteen—who I would be, what I would look like, what anyone would. I could not imagine thirteen years into the future. It seemed to me that the world might be over by that time. Everyone, potentially, was in the same boat as I was.”

“Really. You thought that?”

“I did.”

“Advanced thoughts for a one-year-old.”

That made Bloom sit up straight. And quite an effort, I should say. A hell of an effort. His eyes shone. “Who doesn’t, when he’s one or two, imagine that the future is immeasurably far off? So far it will never get here. Who doesn’t think that way? Can you tell me you thought differently at that age?”

I would have answered him—in fact, I was about to—when I realized there was no answer I could give.

“Come on,” he croaked. “Tell me. What did you think at age one?”

“Nothing,” I said calmly. “I cannot remember having a single, solitary idea in my head. In fact, I don’t even remember myself at that age. My life didn’t begin until I turned four or five.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Maybe six.”

He pushed his old paw at me, his sagging bones. “But that’s not true. You were alive the entire time. Just because you don’t remember it now—”

“Honestly, Bloom, it’s like I didn’t exist until my family moved to New Jersey. That’s when my memories start.”

“No,” he said. “No, no, no, no. You have it all wrong. If a man hits his head and stops remembering anything that happened to him up to five minutes ago, it does not mean he didn’t exist until five minutes ago.”

“But no one hit me, Bloom. Nothing drastic happened. I was just like everyone else.”

At that, he stopped talking. It looked for a moment as if he might be choking; he made a sound like something was caught in his throat. But then he began to cry. Almost motionless at first; then he declined his head and gave in to it: coarse, hoary bawling. Terrible. Right in my face. But why? What for? What did he expect, that I would take his wrinkled hands into my own? That I would massage them with soft words and reassuring touches? That I would pull his ossified shoulders against my chest and kiss his ghost-pale cheek?

We had given him what we promised. And every single day, he was realizing the benefits of our promise and its fulfillment. It was the rest of us who were kept waiting, crammed together in this miserable township and so many other ones around the world. All that was being asked of Bloom now was what came naturally out of the experiment, out of the contract his mother signed sixteen years earlier. All that was being asked of him was what could not be avoided. Besides, Bloom would go to his death counted as one of our saviors of our country, if not the human species. He would be written up in history books and remembered as fiercely as we do all heroes and martyrs. Not bad for someone who would live barely past fifteen. Not bad for anyone.

I did not take his hand or his shoulder. I did not kiss him. I did not squeeze him. I leaned over the side table and said into his face, “There’s a reason you remember it all. It’s because of who you are.”

“Quiet,” he whispered. “Please.” The voice came wheezily from the bottom of a pair of near-expired lungs. I took his glass from his hand. He was done. He wouldn’t drink any more black syrup. I’d given him enough. I’d made certain to. As he whimpered away the last of his breath, I carried the glasses and the syrup bottle out of the room, into the hallway. I wanted to get rid of the things, abandon them for the housekeeper to deal with, or whoever was responsible. But then it struck me: I was holding the last glass touched by the last survivor of the most successful genetic engineering experiment in human history. Here it was.

How many people, two hundred or five hundred years from now, would know that? How many, even if they track down the security tape and watch it with idle historical interest, will realize? How many will comprehend what they are seeing? This apparently ordinary image: a fiftyish man with a noticeable but typical paunch, black-framed glasses and thinning hair. This so forgettable entity, standing still, struck dumb by a thought. Will they hear my thought, any of it? Of course not. Because the camera can only show the outside. They will see my balding top. They will see my thick nose. They will see the curling ends of my smile. They may even recognize the lambent glow of satisfaction around my eyes. But they will not understand. Because they will not be paying attention. They will see me set the bottle of syrup and the small drinking glass down in the hallway and think that that is the only meaning. A passing janitorial chore, politely rendered by someone who—having been raised in a household that could barely afford food, much less “help”—does not know that guests should leave dirty glasses inside the chambers for the staff to collect. What a helpful soul, they will think. Just what we might expect from the man who gave up his own time to be with his friend and ended up sharing the friend’s last hour. So many years from now, when they watch the tape, this will be the meaning they draw from what they see; if they draw any meaning at all. But it is not the only meaning. Nothing—not one thing—ever means only one thing. If you want to understand me, don’t forget that.