Who cared? After all, Building Seven was different. The hundred-odd patients of its three yellow wards had nearly all escaped the place at least once or twice over the years, and had every hope of escaping again, for good, as soon as their X rays cleared up or as soon as they had recovered from various kinds of surgery; meanwhile, they did not think of it as home or even as life, exactly, but as a timeless limbo between spells of what, like prisoners, they called "the outside." Another thing: owing to the unmilitary nature of their ailment, they didn't think of themselves primarily as "veterans" anyway (except perhaps at Christmastime, when each man got a multigraphed letter of salutation from the President and a five-dollar bill from the New York Journal-American) and so felt no real bond with the wounded and maimed.
Building Seven was a world of its own. It held out a daily choice between its own kind of virtue—staying in bed—and its own kind of vice: midnight crap games, AWOL, and the smuggling of beer and whiskey through the fire-exit doors of its two latrines. It was the stage for its own kind of comedy—the night Snyder chased the charge nurse into the fluoroscopy room with a water pistol, for instance, or the time the pint of bourbon slipped out of old Foley's bathrobe and smashed at Dr. Resnick's feet—and once in awhile its own kind of tragedy—the time Jack Fox sat up in bed to say, "Chrissake, open the window," coughed and brought up the freak hemorrhage that killed him in ten minutes, or the other times, two or three times a year, when one of the men who had been wheeled away to surgery, smiling and waving to cries of "Take it easy!" and "Good luck t'ya, boy!" would never come back. But mostly it was a world consumed by its own kind of boredom, where everyone sat or lay amid the Kleenex and the sputum cups and the clangor of all-day radios. That was the way things were in C Ward on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, except that the radio were swamped under the noise of Tiny Kovacs's laughter.
He was an enormous man of thirty, six and a half feet tall and broad as a bear, and that afternoon he was having a private talk with his friend Jones, who looked comically small and scrawny beside him. They would whisper together and then laugh—Jones with a nervous giggle, repeatedly, scratching his belly through the pajamas, Tiny with his great guffaw. After a while they got up, still flushed with laughter, and made their way across the ward to McIntyre's bed.
"Hey, Mac, listen," Jones began, "Tiny'n I got an idea." Then he got the giggled and said, "Tell him, Tiny."
The trouble was that McIntyre, a fragile man of forty-one with a lined, sarcastic face, was trying to write an important letter at the time. But they both mistook his grimace of impatience for a smile, and Tiny began to explain the idea in good faith.
"Listen, Mac, tonight around twelve I'm gonna get all undressed, see?" He spoke with some difficulty because all his front teeth were missing; they had gone bad soon after his lungs, and the new plate the hospital had ordered for him was long overdue. "I'll be all naked except I'm gonna wear this towel, see? Like a diaper? And then look, I'm gonna put this here acrost my chest." He rolled a strip of four-inch bandage, a yard long, on which he or Jones had written "1951" in big block numerals with marking ink. "Get it?" he said. "A big fat baby? No teef? And then listen, Mac, you can be the old year, okay? You can put this here on, and this here. You'll be perfect." The second bandage said "1950," and the other item was a false beard of white cotton wool that they'd dug up from a box of Red Cross supplies in the dayroom—it had evidently belonged to an old Santa Claus costume.
"No, thanks," McIntyre said. "Find somebody else, okay?"
"Aw, jeez, you gotta do it, Mac," Tiny said. "Listen, we thought of evvybody else in the building and you're the only—don'tcha see? Skinny, bald, a little gray hair. And the best part is you're like me, you got no teef eiver." Then, to show no offense was meant, he added, "Well, I mean, at lease you oculd take 'em out, right? You could take 'em out for a couple minutes and put 'em back in after—right?"
"Look, Kovacs," McIntyre said, briefly closing his eyes, "I already said no. Now will the both a you please take off?"
Slowly Tiny's face reshaped itself into a pout, blotched red in the cheeks as if he'd been slapped. "Arright," he said with self-control, grabbing the beard and the bandages from McIntyre's bed. "Arright, the hell wive it." He swung around and strode back to his own side of the ward, and Jones trotted after him, smiling in embarrassment, his loose slippers flapping on the floor.
McIntyre shook his head. "How d'ya like them two for a paira idiot bastards?" he said to the man int he next bed, a thin and very ill Negro named Vernon Sloan. "You heard all that, Vernon?"
"I got the the general idea," Sloan said. He started to say something else but began coughing instead, reaching out a long brown hand for his sputum cup, and McIntyre went to work on his letter again.
Back at his own bed, Tiny threw the beard and the bandages in his locker and slammed it shut. Jones hurried up beside him, pleading. "Listen, Tiny, we'll get another guy, is all. We'll get Shulman, or—"
"Ah, Shulman's too fat."
"Well, or Johnson, then, or—"
"Look, forget it, willya, Jones?" Tiny exploded. "Piss on it. I'm through. Try thinkin' up somethin' to give the guys a little laugh on New Year's, and that's whatcha get."
Jones sat down on Tiny's bedside chair. "Well, hell," he said after a pause, "it's still a good idea, isn't it?"
"Ah!" Tiny pushed one heave hand away in disgust. "Ya think any a these bastids 'ud appreciate it? Ya think there's one sunuvabitchin' bastid in this building 'ud appreciate it? Piss on 'em all."
It was no use arguing: Tiny would sulk for the rest of the day now. This always happened when his feelings were hurt, and they were hurt fairly often, for his particular kind of jollity was apt to get on the other men's nerves. There was, for instance, the business of the quacking rubber duck he had bought in the hospital canteen shortly before Christmas, as a gift for one of his nephews. The trouble that time was that in the end he had decided to buy something else for the child and keep the duck for himself; quacking it made him laugh for hours on end. After the lights were out at night he would creep up on the other patients and quack the duck in their faces, and it wasn't long before nearly everyone told him to cut it out and shut up. Then somebody—McIntyre, in fact—had swiped the duck from Tiny's bed and hidden it, and Tiny had sulked for three days. "You guys think you're so smart," he had grumbled to the ward at large. "Actin' like a buncha kids."
It was Jones who found the duck and returned it to him; Jones was about the only man left who thought the thing Tiny did were funny. Now his face brightened a little as he got up to leave. "Anyway, I got my bottle, Tiny," he said. "You'n me'll have some fun tonight." Jones was not a drinking man, but New Year's Eve was special and smuggling was a challenge: a few days earlier he had arranged to have a pint of rye brought in and had hidden it, with a good deal of giggling, under some spare pajamas in his locker.
"Don't tell nobody else you got it," Tiny said. "I wouldn't tell these bastids the time a day." He jerked a cigarette into his lips and struck the match savagely. Then he got his new Christmas robe off the hanger and put it on—careful, for all his temper, to arrange the fit of the padded shoulder and the sash just right. It was a gorgeous robe, plum-colored satin with contrasting red lapels, and Tiny's face and manner assumed a strange dignity whenever he put it on. This look was as new, or rather, as seasonal, as the robe itself: it dated back to the week before, when he'd gotten dressed to go home for his Christmas pass.
Many of the men were a revelation in one way or another when they appeared in their street clothes. McIntyre had grown surprisingly humble, incapable of sarcasm or pranks, when he put on his scarcely worn accounting clerk's costume of blue serge, and Jones had grown surprisingly tough in his old Navy foul-weather jacket. Young Krebs, whom everybody called Junior, had assumed a portly maturity with his double-breasted business suit, and Travers, who most people had forgotten was a Yale man, looked oddly effete in his J. Press flannels and his button-down collar. Several of the Negroes had suddenly become Negroes again, instead of ordinary men, when they appreared in their sharply pegged trousers, draped coats and huge Windsor knots, and they even seemed embarrassed to be talking to the white men on the old familiar terms. But possibly the biggest change of all had been Tiny's. The clothes themselves were no surprise—his family ran a prosperous restaurant in Queens, and he was appropriately well-turned-out in a rich black overcoat and silk scarf—but the dignity they gave him was remarkable. The silly grin was gone, the laugh silenced, the clumsy movements overcome. The eyes beneath his snap-brim hat were not Tiny's eyes at all, but calm and masterful. Even his missing teeth didn't spoil the effect, for he kept his mouth shut except to mutter brief, almost curt Christmas wishes. The other patients looked up with a certain shy respect at this new man, this dramatic stranger who hard heels crashed on the marble floor as he strode out of the building—and later, when he swung along the sidewalks of Jamaica on his way home, the crowds instinctively moved aside to make way for him.
Tiny was aware of the splendid figure he cut, but by the time he was home he'd stopped thinking about it; in the circle of his family it was real. Nobody called him Tiny there—he was Harold, a gentle son, a quiet hero to many round-eyed children, a rare and honored visitor. At one point, in the afterglow of a great dinner, a little girl was led ceremoniously up to his chair, where she stood shyly, not daring to meet his eyes, her fingers clasping the side seams of her party dress. Her mother urged her to speak: "Do you want to tell Uncle Harold what you say in your prayers every night, Irene?"
"Yes," the little girl said. "I tell Jesus please to bless Uncle Harold and make him get well again soon."
Uncle Harold smiled and took hold of both her hands. "That's swell, Irene," he said huskily. "But you know, you shunt tell Him. You should ask Him."
She looked into his face for the first time. "That's what I meant," she said. "I ask him."
And Uncle Harold gathered her in his arms, putting his big face over her shoulder so she couldn't see that his eyes were blurred with tears. "That's a good girl," he whispered. It was a scene nobody in Building Seven would have believed.
He remained Harold until the pass was over and he strode away from a clinging family farewell, shrugging the great overcoat around his shoulder and squaring the hat. He was Harold all the way to the bus terminal and all the way back to the hospital, and the other men still looked at him oddly and greeted him a little shyly when he pounded back into C Ward. He went to his bed and put down his several packages (one of which contained the new robe), then headed for the latrine to get undressed. That was the beginning of the end, for when he came out in the old faded pajamas and scuffed slippers there was only a trace of importance left in his softening face, and even that disappeared in the next hour or two, while he lay on his bed and listened to the radio. Later that evening, when most of the other returning patients had settled down, he sat up and looked around in the old, silly way. He waited patiently for a moment of complete silence, then thrust his rubber duck high in the air and quacked it seven times to the rhythm of "shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits," while everybody groaned and swore. Tiny was back, ready to start a new year.
Now, less than a week later, he could still recapture his dignity whenever he needed it by putting on the robe, striking a pose and thinking hard about his home. Of course, it was only a question of time before the robe grew rumpled with familiarity, and then it would all be over, but meanwhile it worked like a charm.
Across the aisle, McIntyre sat brooding over his unfinished letter. "I don't know, Vernon," he said to Sloan. "I felt sorry for you last week, having to stay in this dump over Christmas, but you know something? You were lucky. I wish they wouldn't of let me go home either."
"That so?" Sloan said. "How do you mean?"
"Ah, I don't know," McIntyre said, wiping his fountain pen with a piece of Kleenex. "I don't know. Just that it's a bitch, having to come back afterwards, I guess." But that was only part of it; the other part, like the letter he'd been trying to write all week, was his own business.
McIntyre's wife had grown fat and bewildered in the last year or two. On the alternate Sunday afternoons when she came out to visit him she never seemed to have much on her mind but the movies she had seen, or the television shows, and she gave him very little news of their two children, who almost never came out. "We'll have a lot of fun. Only listen, Dad, are you sure that bus trip isn't gonna tire you out?"
"'Course not," he had said, a number of times. "I didn't have no trouble last year, did I?"
Nevertheless he was breathing hard when he eased himself off the bus at least, carrying the packages he had bought in the hospital canteen, and he had to walk very slowly up the snow-crusted Brooklyn street to his home.
His daughter, Jean, who was eighteen now, was not there when he came in.
"Oh, sure," his wife explained, "I thought I told you she'd prob'ly be out tonight."
"No," he said. "You didn't tell me. Where'd she go?"
"Oh, out to the movie is all, with her girlfriend Brenda. I didn't think you'd mind, Dad. Fact, I told her to go. She needs a little night off once in a while. You know, she's kind of run-down. She gets nervous and everything."
"What's she get nervous about?"
"Well, you know. One thing, this job she's got now's very tiring. I mean she likes the work and everything, but she's not used to the full eight hours a day, you know what I mean? She'll settle down to it. Come on, have a cuppa coffee, and then we'll put the tree up. We'll have a lot of fun."
On his way to wash up he passed her empty room, with its clean cosmetic smell, its ragged teddy bear and framed photographs of singers, and he said, "It sure seems funny to be home."
His boy, Joseph, had still been a kid fooling around with model airplanes the Christmas before; now he wore his hair about four inches too long and spent a great deal of time working on it with his comb, shaping it into a gleaming pompadour with upswept sides. He was a heavy smoker too, pinching the cigarette between his yellow-stained thumb and forefinger and cupping the live end in his palm. He hardly moved his lips when he spoke, and his only way of laughing was to make a brief snuffling sound in his nose. He gave one of these little snorts during the trimming of the Christmas tree, when McIntyre said something about a rumor that the Veterans Administration might soon increased his disability pensions. It might have mean nothing, but to McIntyre it was the same as if he had said, "Who you tryna kid, Pop? We know where the money's coming from." It seemed an unmistakable, wise-guy reference to the fact that McIntyre's brother-in-law, and not his pension, was providing the bulk of the family income. He resolved to speak to his wife about it at bedtime that night, but when the time came all he said was, "Don't he ever get his hair cut anymore?"
"All the kids are wearing it that way now," she said. "Why do you have to criticize him all the time?"
Jean was there in the morning, slow and rumpled in a loose blue wrapper. "Hi, sweetie," she said, and gave him a kiss that smelled of sleep and stale perfume. She opened her presents quietly and then lay for a long time with one leg thrown over the arm of a deep upholstered chair, her foot swinging, her fingers picking at a pimple on her chin.
McIntyre couldn't take his eyes off her. It wasn't just that she was a woman—the kind of withdrawn, obliquely smiling woman that had filled him with intolerable shyness and desire in his own youth—it was something more disturbing even than that.
"Whaddya looking at, Dad?" she said, smiling and frowning at once. "You keep lookin' at me all the time."
He felt himself blushing. "I always like to look at pretty girls. Is that so terrible?"
"'Course not." She began intently plucking at the broken edge of one of her fingernails, frowning down at her hands in a way that made her long eyelashes fall in delicate curves against her cheeks. "It's just—you know. When a person keeps looking at you all the time it makes you nervous, that's all."
"Honey, listen," McIntyre leaned forward with both elbows on his skinny knees. "Can I ask you something? What's all this business about being nervous? Ever since I come home, that's all I heard. 'Jean's very nervous. Jean's very nervous.' So listen, will you please tell me something? What's there to be so nervous about?"
"Nothing," she said. "I don't know, Dad. Nothing, I guess."
"Well, because the reason I ask—" he was trying to make his voice deep and gentle, the way he was almost sure it had sounded long ago, but it came out scratchy and querulous, short of breath—"the reason I ask is, if there's something bothering you or anything, don't you think you ought to tell your dad about it?"
Her fingernail tore deep into the quick, which caused her to shake it violently and pop it into her mouth with a little whimper of pain, and suddenly she was on her feet, red-faced and crying. "Dad, willya lea' me alone? Willya just please lea' me alone?" She ran out of the room and upstairs and slammed her door.
McIntyre had started after he, but instead he stood swaying and glared at his wife and son, who were examining the carpet at opposite ends of the room.
"What the matter with her, anyway?" he demanded. "Huh? What the hell's going on around here?" But they were as silent as two guilty children. "C'mon," he said. His head made a slight involuntary movement with each suck of air into his frail chest. "C'mon, goddamn it, tell me."
With a little wet moan his wife sank down and spread herself among the sofa cushions, weeping, letting her face melt. "All right," she said. "All right, you asked for it. We all done our best to give you a nice Christmas, but if you're gonna come home and snoop around and drive everybody crazy with your questions, all right—it's your funeral. She's four months pregnant—there, now are you satisfied? Now willya please quit bothering everybody?"
McIntyre sat down in an easy chair that was full of rattling Christmas paper, his head still moving with each breath.
"Who was it?" he said at last. "Who's the boy?"
"Ask her," his wife said. "Go on, ask her and see. She won't tell you. She won't tell anybody—that's the whole trouble. She wouldn't even of let on about the baby if I hadn't found out, and now she won't even tell her own mother the boy's name. She'd rather break her mother's heart—yes, she would, and her brother's too."
Then he heard it again, a little snuffle across the room. Joseph was standing there smirking as he stubbed out a cigarette. His lower lip moved slightly and he said, "Maybe she don't know the guy's name."
McIntyre rose very slowly out of the rattling paper, walked over to his son and hit him hard across the face with the flat of his hand, making the long hair jump from his skull and fall around his ears, making his face wince into the face of a hurt, scared little boy. Then blood began to run from the little boy's nose and dribble on the nylon shirt he had gotten for Christmas, and McIntyre hit him again, and that was when his wife screamed.
A few hours later he was back in Building Seven with nothing to do. All week he ate poorly, talked very little, except to Vernon Sloan, and spent a great deal of time working on a letter to his daughter that was still unfinished on the afternoon of New Year's Eve.
After many false starts, which had ended up among the used Kleenex tissues in the paper bag that hung beside his bed, this was what he had written:
I guess I got pretty excited and made a lot of trouble when I was home. Baby it was only that I have been away so long it is hard for me to understand that your a grown up woman that is why I kind of went crazy that day. Now Jean I have done some thinking since I got back here and I want to write you a few lines.
The main thing is try not to worry. Remember your not the first girl that's made a mistake and
gotten into trouble of this kind. Your mom is all upset I know but do not let her get you down. Now Jean it may seem that you and I don;'t know each other very well any more but this is not so. Do you remember when I first come out of the army and you were about 12 then and we used to take a walk in Prospect Pk. sometimes and talk things over. I wish I could have a talk like that
with you now. Your old dad may not be good for much any more but he does know a thing or two about life and especially one important thing, and that is
That was as far as the letter went.
Now that Tiny's laughter was stilled, the ward seemed unnaturally quiet. The old year faded in a thin yellow sunset behind the west windows; then darkness fell, the lights came on and shuddering rubber-wheeled wagons of dinner trays were rolled in by masked and gowned attendants. One of them, a gaunt, bright-eyed man named Carl, went through his daily routine.
"Hey, you guys heard about the man that ran over himself?" he asked, stopping in the middle of the aisle with a steaming pitcher of coffee in his hand.
"Just pour the coffee, Carl," somebody said.
Carl filled a few cups and started across the aisle to fill a few more, but midway he stopped again and bugged his eyes over the rim of his sterile mask. "No, but listen—you guys heard about the man that ran over himself? This is a new one." He looked at Tiny, who usually was more than willing to play straight man for him, but Tiny was moodily buttering a slice of bread, his cheeks wobbling with each stroke of the knife. "Well, anyways," Carl said at last, "this man says to this kid, 'Hey kid, run acrost the street and get me a packa cigarettes, willya?' Kid says, 'No,' see? So the man ran over himself!" He doubled up and pounded his thigh. Jones groaned appreciatively; everyone else ate in silence.
When the meal was over and the trays cleared away, McIntyre tore up the old beginning of page 3 and dropped it in the waste bag. He resettled his pillow, brushed some food crumbs off the bed, and wrote this:
with you now.
So Jean please write and tell me the name of this boy. I promise I
But he threw that page away too, and sat for a long time writing nothing, smoking a cigarette with his usual careful effort to avoid inhaling. At least he took up his pen again and cleaned its point very carefully with a leaf of Kleenex. Then he began a new page:
with you now.
Now baby I have got an idea. As you know I am now waiting to have another operation on the left side in February but if all goes well maybe I could take off out of this place by April 1. Of course I would not get a discharge but I could take a chance like I did in 1947 and hope for better luck this time. Then we could go away to the country someplace just you and I and I could take a part time job and we could
The starched rustle and rubber-heeled thump of a nurse made him look up; she was standing beside his bed with a bottle of rubbing alcohol. "How about you, McIntyre? she said. "Back rub?"
"No thanks," he said. "Not tonight."
"My goodness." She peered just a little at the letter, which he shielded just a little with his hand. "You still writing letters? Every time I come past here you're writing letters. You must have a lot of people to write to. I wish I had the time to catch up on my letters."
"Yeah," he said. "Well, that's the thing, see. I got plenty of time."
"Well, but how can you think of so many things to write about?" she said. "That's my trouble. I sit down and I get all ready to write a letter and then I can't think of a single thing to write about. It's terrible."
He watched the shape of her buttocks as she moved away down the aisle. Then he read over the new page, crumpled it, and dropped it in the bag. Closing his eyes and massaging the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, he tried to remember the exact words of the first version. At last he wrote it out again as well as he could:
with you now.
Baby Jean your old dad may not be good for much any more but he does know a thing or two about life and especially one important thing, and that is
But from there on, the pen lay dead in his cramped fingers. It was as if all the letters of the alphabet, all the combinations of letters into words, all the infinite possibilities of handwritten language had ceased to exist.
He looked out the window for help, but the window was a black mirror now and gave back only the light, the bright bedsheets and pajamas of the ward. Pulling on his robe and slippers, he went over to stand with his forehead and cupped hands against the cold pane. Now he could make out the string of highway lights in the distance and, beyond that, the horizon of black trees between the snow and the sky. Just above the horizon, on the right, the sky was suffused with a faint pink blur from the lgihts of Brooklyn and New York, but this was partly hidden from view by a big dark shape in the foreground that was a blind corner of the paraplegic building, a world away.
When McIntyre turned back from the window to blink in the yellow light, leaving a shriveling ghost of his breath on the glass, it was with an oddly shy look of rejuvenation and relief. He walked to his bed, stacked the pages of his manuscript neatly, tore them in halves and in quarters and dropped them into the waste bag. Then he got his pack of cigarettes and went over to stand beside Vernon Sloan, who was blinking through his reading glasses at The Saturday Evening Post.
"Smoke, Vernon?" he said.
"No thanks, Mac. I smoke more'n one or two a day, it only makes me cough."
"Okay," McIntyre said, lightning one for himself. "Care to play a little checkers?"
"No thanks, Mac, not right now. I'm a little tired—think I'll just read awhile."
"Any good articles in there this week, Vernon?"
"Oh, pretty good," he said. "Couple pretty good ones." Then his mouth worked into a grin that slowly disclosed nearly all of his very clean teeth. "Say, what's the matter with you, man? You feelin' good or somethin'?"
"Oh, not too bad, Vernon," he said, stretching his skinny arms and his spine. "Not too bad."
"You finish your writin' finally? Is that it?"
"Yeah, I guess so," he said. "My trouble is, I can't think of anything to write about."
Looking across the aisle to where Tiny Kovacs's wide back sat slumped in the purple amplitude of the new robe, he walked over and laid a hand on one of the enormous satin shoulders. "So?" he said.
Tiny's head swung around to glare at him, immediately hostile. "So what?"
"So where's that beard?"
Tiny wrenched open his locker, grabbed out the beard and thrust it roughly into McIntyre's hands. "Here," he said. "You want it? Take it."
McIntyre held it up to his ears and slipped the string over his head. "String oughta be a little tighter," he said. "There, how's that? Prob'ly look better when I get my teeth out."
But Tiny wasn't listening. He was burrowing in his locker for the strips of bandage. "Here," he said. "Take this stuff too. I don't want no part of it. You wanna do it, you get somebody else."
At that moment Jones came padding over, all smiles. "Hey, you gonna do it, Mac? You change your mind?"
"Jones, talk to this big son of a bitch," McIntyre said through the wagging beard. "He don't wanna cooperate."
"Aw, jeez, Tiny," Jones implored. "The whole thing depends on you. The whole thing was your idea."
"I already told ya," Tiny said. "I don't want no part of it. You wanna do it, you find some other sucker."
After the lights went out at ten nobody bothered much about hiding their whiskey. Men who had been taking furtive nips in the latrines all evening now drank in quietly jovial groups around teh wards, with the unofficial once-a-year blessing of the charge nurse. Nobody took particular notice when, a little before midnight, three men from C Ward slipped out to the linen closet to get a sheet and a towel, then to the kitchen to get a mop handle, and then walked the length of the building and disappeared into the A Ward latrine.
There was a last minute flurry over the heard: it hid so much of McIntyre's face that the effect of his missing teeth was spoiled. Jones solved the problem by cutting away all of it but the chin whiskers, which he fastened in place with bits of adhesive tape. "There," he said, "that does it. That's perfect. Now roll up your pajama pants, Mac, so just your bare legs'll show under the sheet? Get it? Now where's your mop handle?"
"Jones, it don't work!" Tiny called tragically. He was standing naked except for a pair of white woolen socks, trying to pin the folded towel around his loins. "The son of a bitch won't stay up!"
Jones hurried over to fix it, and finally everything was ready. Nervously, they killed the last of Jones's rye and dropped the empty bottle into a laundry hamper; then they slipped outside and huddled in the darkness at the head of A Ward.
"Ready?" Jones whispered. "Okay. . . . Now." He flicked on the overhead lights, and thirty startled faces blinked in the glare.
First came 1950, a wasted figure crouched on a trembling staff, lame and palsied with age; behind him, grinning and flexing his muscles, danced the enormous diapered baby of the New Year. For a second or two there was silence except for the unsteady tapping of the old man's staff, and then the laughter and the cheers began.
"Out wivvie old!" the baby bellowed over the noise, and he made an elaborate burlesque of hauling off and kicking the old man in the seat of the pants, which caused the old man to stagger weakly and rub one buttock as they moved up the aisle. "Out wivvie old! In wivva new!"
Jones ran on ahead to turn on the lights of B Ward, where the ovation was even louder. Nurses clustered helplessly int he doorway to watch, frowning or giggling behind their sterile masks as the show made its way through cheers and catcalls.
"Out wivvie old! In wivva new!"
In one of the private rooms a dying man blinked up through the window of his oxygen tent as his door was flun open and his light turned on. He started bewildered at the frantic toothless clowns who capered at the foot of his bed; finally he understood and gave them a yellow smile, and they moved on to the next private room and the next, arriving at least in C Ward, where their friends stood massed and laughing in the aisle.
There was barely time for the pouring of fresh drinks before all the radios blared up at once and Guy Lombardo's band broke into "Auld Lang Syne"; then all the shouts dissolved into a great off-key chorus in which Tiny's voice could be heard over all the others:
"Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind? . . . "
Even Vernon Sloan was singing, propped up in bed and holding a watery highball, which he slowly waved in time to the music. They were all singing.
"For o-o-old lang syne, my boys,
For o-o-old lang syne . . . "
And when the song was over the handshaking began.
"Good luck t'ya, boy."
"Same to you, boy—hope you make it this year."
All over Building Seven men wandered in search of hands to shake; under the noise of shouts and radios the words were repeated again and again: "Good luck t'ya. . . ." "Hope you make it this year, boy. . . ." And standing still and tired by Tiny Kovacs's bed, where the purple robe lay thrown in careless wads and wrinkles, McIntyre raised his glass and his bare-gummed smile to the crowd, with Tiny's laughter roaring in his ear and Tiny's heavy arm around his neck.
from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962)
and to you, and all the slime mold on this horrible, lovely planet, happy new year, 2019.