If it was good enough for your grandfather, forget it ... it is much too good for anyone else!
Gramps Ford, his chin resting on his hands, his hands on the crook of his cane, was staring irascibly at the five-foot television screen that dominated the room. On the screen, a news commentator was summarizing the day’s happenings. Every thirty seconds or so, Gramps would jab the floor with his cane-tip and shout, “Hell, we did that a hundred years ago!”
Emerald and Lou, coming in from the balcony, where they had been seeking that 2185 A.D. rarity--privacy--were obliged to take seats in the back row, behind Lou’s father and mother, brother and sister-in-law, son and daughter-in-law, grandson and wife, granddaughter and husband, great-grandson and wife, nephew and wife, grandnephew and wife, great-grandniece and husband, great-grandnephew and wife--and, of course, Gramps, who was in front of everybody. All save Gramps, who was somewhat withered and bent, seemed, by pre-anti-gerasone standards, to be about the same age--somewhere in their late twenties or early thirties. Gramps looked older because he had already reached 70 when anti-gerasone was invented. He had not aged in the 102 years since.
“Meanwhile,” the commentator was saying, “Council Bluffs, Iowa, was still threatened by stark tragedy. But 200 weary rescue workers have refused to give up hope, and continue to dig in an effort to save Elbert Haggedorn, 183, who has been wedged for two days in a...”
“I wish he’d get something more cheerful,” Emerald whispered to Lou.
“Silence!” cried Gramps. “Next one shoots off his big bazoo while the TV’s on is gonna find hisself cut off without a dollar--” his voice suddenly softened and sweetened--”when they wave that checkered flag at the Indianapolis Speedway, and old Gramps gets ready for the Big Trip Up Yonder.”
He sniffed sentimentally, while his heirs concentrated desperately on not making the slightest sound. For them, the poignancy of the prospective Big Trip had been dulled somewhat, through having been mentioned by Gramps about once a day for fifty years.
“Dr. Brainard Keyes Bullard,” continued the commentator, “President of Wyandotte College, said in an address tonight that most of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that Man’s knowledge of himself has not kept pace with his knowledge of the physical world.”
“Hell!“ snorted Gramps. “We said that a hundred years ago!”
“In Chicago tonight,” the commentator went on, “a special celebration is taking place in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital. The guest of honor is Lowell W. Hitz, age zero. Hitz, born this morning, is the twenty-five-millionth child to be born in the hospital.” The commentator faded, and was replaced on the screen by young Hitz, who squalled furiously.
“Hell!” whispered Lou to Emerald. “We said that a hundred years ago.”
“I heard that!” shouted Gramps. He snapped off the television set and his petrified descendants stared silently at the screen. “You, there, boy--”
“I didn’t mean anything by it, sir,” said Lou, aged 103.
“Get me my will. You know where it is. You kids all know where it is. Fetch, boy!” Gramps snapped his gnarled fingers sharply.
Lou nodded dully and found himself going down the hall, picking his way over bedding to Gramps’ room, the only private room in the Ford apartment. The other rooms were the bathroom, the living room and the wide windowless hallway, which was originally intended to serve as a dining area, and which had a kitchenette in one end. Six mattresses and four sleeping bags were dispersed in the hallway and living room, and the daybed, in the living room, accommodated the eleventh couple, the favorites of the moment.
On Gramps’ bureau was his will, smeared, dog-eared, perforated and blotched with hundreds of additions, deletions, accusations, conditions, warnings, advice and homely philosophy. The document was, Lou reflected, a fifty-year diary, all jammed onto two sheets--a garbled, illegible log of day after day of strife. This day, Lou would be disinherited for the eleventh time, and it would take him perhaps six months of impeccable behavior to regain the promise of a share in the estate. To say nothing of the daybed in the living room for Em and himself.
“Boy!” called Gramps.
“Coming, sir.” Lou hurried back into the living room and handed Gramps the will.
“Pen!” said Gramps.
He was instantly offered eleven pens, one from each couple.
“Not that leaky thing,” he said, brushing Lou’s pen aside. “Ah, there’s a nice one. Good boy, Willy.” He accepted Willy’s pen. That was the tip they had all been waiting for. Willy, then--Lou’s father--was the new favorite.
Willy, who looked almost as young as Lou, though he was 142, did a poor job of concealing his pleasure. He glanced shyly at the daybed, which would become his, and from which Lou and Emerald would have to move back into the hall, back to the worst spot of all by the bathroom door.
Gramps missed none of the high drama he had authored and he gave his own familiar role everything he had. Frowning and running his finger along each line, as though he were seeing the will for the first time, he read aloud in a deep portentous monotone, like a bass note on a cathedral organ.
“I, Harold D. Ford, residing in Building 257 of Alden Village, New York City, Connecticut, do hereby make, publish and declare this to be my last Will and Testament, revoking any and all former wills and codicils by me at any time heretofore made.” He blew his nose importantly and went on, not missing a word, and repeating many for emphasis--repeating in particular his ever-more-elaborate specifications for a funeral.
At the end of these specifications, Gramps was so choked with emotion that Lou thought he might have forgotten why he’d brought out the will in the first place. But Gramps heroically brought his powerful emotions under control and, after erasing for a full minute, began to write and speak at the same time. Lou could have spoken his lines for him, he had heard them so often.
“I have had many heartbreaks ere leaving this vale of tears for a better land,” Gramps said and wrote. “But the deepest hurt of all has been dealt me by--” He looked around the group, trying to remember who the malefactor was.
Everyone looked helpfully at Lou, who held up his hand resignedly.
Gramps nodded, remembering, and completed the sentence--”my great-grandson, Louis J. Ford.”
“Grandson, sir,” said Lou.
“Don’t quibble. You’re in deep enough now, young man,” said Gramps, but he made the change. And, from there, he went without a misstep through the phrasing of the disinheritance, causes for which were disrespectfulness and quibbling.
In the paragraph following, the paragraph that had belonged to everyone in the room at one time or another, Lou’s name was scratched out and Willy’s substituted as heir to the apartment and, the biggest plum of all, the double bed in the private bedroom.
“So!” said Gramps, beaming. He erased the date at the foot of the will and substituted a new one, including the time of day. “Well--time to watch the McGarvey Family.” The McGarvey Family was a television serial that Gramps had been following since he was 60, or for a total of 112 years. “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next,” he said.
Lou detached himself from the group and lay down on his bed of pain by the bathroom door. Wishing Em would join him, he wondered where she was.
He dozed for a few moments, until he was disturbed by someone stepping over him to get into the bathroom. A moment later, he heard a faint gurgling sound, as though something were being poured down the washbasin drain. Suddenly, it entered his mind that Em had cracked up, that she was in there doing something drastic about Gramps.
“Em?” he whispered through the panel. There was no reply, and Lou pressed against the door. The worn lock, whose bolt barely engaged its socket, held for a second, then let the door swing inward.
“Morty!” gasped Lou.
Lou’s great-grandnephew, Mortimer, who had just married and brought his wife home to the Ford menage, looked at Lou with consternation and surprise. Morty kicked the door shut, but not before Lou had glimpsed what was in his hand--Gramps’ enormous economy-size bottle of anti-gerasone, which had apparently been half-emptied, and which Morty was refilling with tap water.
A moment later, Morty came out, glared defiantly at Lou and brushed past him wordlessly to rejoin his pretty bride.
Shocked, Lou didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t let Gramps take the mousetrapped anti-gerasone--but, if he warned Gramps about it, Gramps would certainly make life in the apartment, which was merely insufferable now, harrowing.
Lou glanced into the living room and saw that the Fords, Emerald among them, were momentarily at rest, relishing the botches that the McGarveys had made of their lives. Stealthily, he went into the bathroom, locked the door as well as he could and began to pour the contents of Gramps’ bottle down the drain. He was going to refill it with full-strength anti-gerasone from the 22 smaller bottles on the shelf.
The bottle contained a half-gallon, and its neck was small, so it seemed to Lou that the emptying would take forever. And the almost imperceptible smell of anti-gerasone, like Worcestershire sauce, now seemed to Lou, in his nervousness, to be pouring out into the rest of the apartment, through the keyhole and under the door.
The bottle gurgled monotonously. Suddenly, up came the sound of music from the living room and there were murmurs and the scraping of chair-legs on the floor. “Thus ends,” said the television announcer, “the 29,121st chapter in the life of your neighbors and mine, the McGarveys.” Footsteps were coming down the hall. There was a knock on the bathroom door.
“Just a sec,” Lou cheerily called out. Desperately, he shook the big bottle, trying to speed up the flow. His palms slipped on the wet glass, and the heavy bottle smashed on the tile floor.
The door was pushed open, and Gramps, dumbfounded, stared at the incriminating mess.
Lou felt a hideous prickling sensation on his scalp and the back of his neck. He grinned engagingly through his nausea and, for want of anything remotely resembling a thought, waited for Gramps to speak.
“Well, boy,” said Gramps at last, “looks like you’ve got a little tidying up to do.”
And that was all he said. He turned around, elbowed his way through the crowd and locked himself in his bedroom.
The Fords contemplated Lou in incredulous silence a moment longer, and then hurried back to the living room, as though some of his horrible guilt would taint them, too, if they looked too long. Morty stayed behind long enough to give Lou a quizzical, annoyed glance. Then he also went into the living room, leaving only Emerald standing in the doorway.
Tears streamed over her cheeks. “Oh, you poor lamb--please don’t look so awful! It was my fault. I put you up to this with my nagging about Gramps.”
“No,” said Lou, finding his voice, “really you didn’t. Honest, Em, I was just--”
“You don’t have to explain anything to me, hon. I’m on your side, no matter what.” She kissed him on one cheek and whispered in his ear, “It wouldn’t have been murder, hon. It wouldn’t have killed him. It wasn’t such a terrible thing to do. It just would have fixed him up so he’d be able to go any time God decided He wanted him.”
“What’s going to happen next, Em?” said Lou hollowly. “What’s he going to do?”
Lou and Emerald stayed fearfully awake almost all night, waiting to see what Gramps was going to do. But not a sound came from the sacred bedroom. Two hours before dawn, they finally dropped off to sleep.
At six o’clock, they arose again, for it was time for their generation to eat breakfast in the kitchenette. No one spoke to them. They had twenty minutes in which to eat, but their reflexes were so dulled by the bad night that they had hardly swallowed two mouthfuls of egg-type processed seaweed before it was time to surrender their places to their son’s generation.
Then, as was the custom for whoever had been most recently disinherited, they began preparing Gramps’ breakfast, which would presently be served to him in bed, on a tray. They tried to be cheerful about it. The toughest part of the job was having to handle the honest-to-God eggs and bacon and oleomargarine, on which Gramps spent so much of the income from his fortune.
“Well,” said Emerald, “I’m not going to get all panicky until I’m sure there’s something to be panicky about.”