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The Portal -
“Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
The old man snickered at the wild applause, wondering if the White House used cue cards to tell the audience when to cheer. Since his wife died he’d spent Thanksgivings with his son and daughter-in-law, but this year, June lay struggling to deliver what everyone prayed would be a healthy baby boy. He was alone with his dark mood.
The clapping had died down, and the President appeared in vibrant three-dee.
“Fellow Americans, on this Thanksgiving Day in the year of our Lord two-thousand-one-hundred-and-five, the first of my administration, I proclaim the new century a time of growth and renewal. We will rebuild our economy, fix our schools, heal our sick, wipe clean the traces of a hundred years of decline. We will open our arms to the homeless, provide sustenance to those who are hungry.” The cameras swung to show a banquet table surrounded by street people in ragged, dirty clothes.
“This is the beginning of a new era for Americans. I ask you to join …”
A loud crack, the sound of the remote slamming into the holo projector, brought the President’s speech to a premature end. The old man had once had a wicked fastball.
“Lying son of a bitch!”
My paternal grandfather and I had this special thing. No one ever spoke of it, but as long as he and I knew, it didn’t much matter whether anyone else did. The thing was, neither of us thought very highly of most other people and most other people thought we were both pains in the rear end to be around.
Take grandfather’s visits. A period of awkwardness always marked the old man’s arrival. First came my father.
“Hiya, Pop.” The same kiss on the cheek every time. The pained moment, always the same, an expectant look begging that something meaningful might pass between father and son, but it never did.
My mother and her obligatory welcoming rituals came next, the insincere hugs, the hovering resentment over the burden that having him there was likely to be, and mostly, the barely concealed revulsion, which was her own terror showing through. You see, my grandfather, to his great misfortune, had a tremor. His hands shook, he shuffled when he walked, and his voice resisted when he spoke.
To my mother, that was a trinity of warning sirens. Apprehensive by nature, her greatest fear was a debilitating illness that would drain the family’s resources. It shouldn’t have been, in the early decades of the twenty-second century, when a miracle drug existed for every ailment, but some things don’t change.
For fifty years, my grandfather worked as a design engineer, then an administrator, riding the wave of outward expansion that began in 2051. In a desperate attempt to avert economic catastrophe, a nation short on resources had bet its future on space, with the media trumpeting energy beamed from orbiting stations, new industries, revitalized spirit.
Grandpa had been loyal to his corporate masters, and they’d rewarded him with a living wage and a modest pension. Using the measures of a shrinking economy, the old man had had a productive run, yet there he was, shuffling and trembling through his seventies. He never complained about his lot, but he also never failed to speak his mind, forcing people to face realities they’d have preferred to avoid. Most people avoided him.
I was a precocious, irreverent, unusually intelligent child, with no patience for whatever I considered stupid, which was anything I didn’t like. I questioned everything, demanding answers that made sense. “Because I said so,” and “we’ve always done it that way” never worked with me. Worst were people who claimed to believe in something they clearly didn’t. I couldn’t spell “hypocrite” when I was five, but I sure as hell knew what it meant.
Grandpa found all that charming and refreshing, so it was me to whom he chose to impart his accrued lifetime of wisdom. And I, used to being shunned and made to stand in the proverbial corner, sucked up his attention like a vacuum.
Searching for ways to save money, the Government had raised the minimum retirement age to seventy-one, then made it mandatory at seventy-eight, after the unions complained that young people couldn’t find jobs. When my grandfather’s day came, the Company threw him a grand party at their expense, something the perfumed executive who introduced him said they did for only the most important employees. They reserved a table for my family, but Grandpa insisted that I sit with him at the dais. My cousins, who were nine and twelve, had to sit with their parents, but I, at six, got to be up there with the bigs as Grandpa called them.
My mother was nervous about his retirement speech. “You’re supposed to say nice things in these speeches,” she told me, “thanking people for the things they did for you and for all the gifts. But your grandfather’s likely to say anything.”
I wondered why she never worried about the things he said to me. Did she think we spent all those hours playing games, reading stories, and watching holos? She must have been grateful that we kept each other occupied and out of her hair. She had no idea how much he taught me.
Grandpa had a way of working numbers, new words, and ideas into everything we did. Thanks to him, I grew up looking like a prodigy, doing division and multiplication in my head when I was four. Knowing I had a grasp of large numbers, he’d told me that the Company had spent half a year of his salary on his party, just to say goodbye to him. When he saw that I understood he got a little twinkle in his eye that meant, “Crazy, isn’t it?”
Sometimes he taught me more than he realized. When I showed him a picture of a surgical robot that could have corrected his neurological disorder, he became more agitated than I could ever remember seeing him. I’d really hit a nerve.
“That kind of thing’s not for people like you and me,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked, unwilling to accept that without an explanation.
“Did your article say how much the operation cost?” I nodded, somberly.
“It said the operation and hospital care could cost half a million dollars, because the hospitals have to make the patients pay for the machines they bought. It said most people who had the operation had their insurance pay for it.”
He looked at me seriously, then. “Are you just tryin’ to get my goat, Harry boy?”
Maybe I had been, a little. He’d told me how he spent years fighting for better health insurance. The higher you were in the Company, the more it was willing to pay to keep you healthy, but people at his level could only get life-saving surgeries paid for. Even though it was slowly killing him, Grandpa’s illness was classified as a quality-of-life condition. The kind of insurance he needed cost twice what he was entitled to. Only top executives received that. When I said it wasn’t fair, he got a doubtful look on his face, not sure I was ready for the truth.
“Harry, there are simply too many people for our small planet. Too many people means not enough of everything to go around. And that always has and probably always will result in the rich, strong, and powerful making sure they stay that way at the expense of everyone else.”
He called it basic economics. It seemed to apply to everything. I accepted that, because at six, I was only just learning to be cynical.
My mother had thought she was being subtle when she worried aloud about what Grandpa might say from the dais. She meant most people told white lies or were…that word I couldn’t spell…but Grandpa would say whatever was in his head, no matter who was listening.
Sure enough, after he was done saying thanks and telling everyone what a good time he’d had working with them, he put down the paper he’d been reading from and screwed his face up until I thought he was going to cry. My mother and father were shaking their heads.
Adrenaline could overcome his stammer when he was worked up, and his voice boomed over the sound system.
“There’s something I need to tell you. All that work we did, and we worked hard, didn’t we? It was good work. We got the colonies up and functioning. Thousands of people on Mars and the Moon live safely and productively because of us. I feel very proud of what we did.”
He sighed, sounding terribly sad.
“For me, it was more than the work. We were supposed to be fixing things, setting the country back on track. They told us it would take time for things to improve, but if we did our work well we’d see results, remember? I have to tell you, standing here on my last day, it isn’t working. Am I the only one who sees it? If things were getting better, would we be living under urban curfews and the Chip Law?”
The Chip Law of 2098, required every child born in or entering the United States to have an identity microchip implanted at the base of his skull behind his right ear. Each chip contained a GPS component that could precisely locate any child at any time.
“I’ll tell you a secret I haven’t told anyone else,” he continued. “We’ve been had.” Ignoring the gasps and strained expressions of his listeners, he said, “We’re almost done here and things aren’t going to get better.
“They knew it all along. They lied to us so we’d work harder. For our kids,” he reached down to ruffle my hair, “all the opportunity is up there. We’re working so our best young people can find their way to a new life. We’ll hang on here a few more generations, but we’re done.”
A hush fell over the room, and I felt a chill. But Grandpa changed tacks again before the silence got too uncomfortable. He said he knew people wanted to say good-bye, but he wanted the first speech to come from someone special.
He lifted me onto a chair so I could reach the microphone and said, “This is my grandson, Harry.” Everyone applauded politely.
We had rehearsed a few sentences, and I wasn’t nervous at all. But listening to Grandpa talk about false hopes and broken promises had made me angry, and right then, I changed my mind about what I would say. I didn’t care who got angry at me. There was a crumpled piece of yellow paper in my pocket. I took it out, straightened it, and looked at the numbers I’d written.
“I just want everyone to know how much I love my Grandpa” elicited a roomful of “oohs” and “aahs” and “isn’t-that-sweets.”
“He’s my best friend in the world. But I’m sad, because he’s sick. He pretends he isn’t, but we all know he is, and I’m afraid he’s going to die soon.”
So much for letting a precocious six-year-old near a microphone. But I wasn’t done yet.
“It makes me angry, because I know doctors can fix what’s wrong with him. He told me that himself. He said more than a million people have the same thing he does, but only a few have enough money to pay the doctors. I told him that wasn’t fair, and he said those were the rules we all lived by.”
I held up my piece of yellow paper and looked at my grandfather, forcing myself not to care what anyone thought.
“You were wrong,” I said. “I worked it out myself like you taught me. I checked it and added it all up again the way you showed me.”
I switched my attention to the executive who’d said how important my grandfather had been to the Company, how much they cared about him. I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t hold back my tears.
“You didn’t tell the truth, Mr. McLewin. You said the Company wished my Grandpa long life and happiness. You could save him if you wanted to, but you won’t. It’s all right here,” I said, waving the yellow paper at him. “You could cure him for less money than you spent on this party. All you had to do was buy him the insurance that would pay the doctors. Why didn’t you?”
It all caught up to me, then. I scrunched up into Grandpa’s arms like any six-year-old afraid of losing him.
A few days later, my Uncle Will came to see me. He and my parents and I sat in our tiny living room. My yellow paper was in his hand, along with some stuff printed by his computer.
“Did you really do this yourself, Harry?” he asked. “It’s pretty impressive.”
In response to my mother’s elbow, I mumbled, “Thanks, Uncle Will.”
“I just wanted you to know, Harry. I checked it over myself, and what you said was right. I never realized it till you made me see. So I made some calls and I found an insurance company that will cover the operation and the medicines my father needs. You deserve to know the truth, so I’ll just tell it to you. The whole family has decided to contribute money to pay for the extra insurance, but it won’t be easy, Harry. Most of us have taken pay cuts this year, and everyone will be giving up something to help out. But we decided you were right. I came to thank you for making us see.”
My heart soared, but in the end, Grandpa refused. I had him for a few more years, but each time I saw him he seemed diminished from the time before. Before long, he was only a shadow of the man he’d been.