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"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 the Sheepdip."
"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 ones left."
She studied the mural bleakly. "Gee," she said, "they're all the same to me. I don't know anything about art."
"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."