2BR02B (also “2BR02B”). Kilgore Trout’s novel (the alphanumeric abbreviation of Hamlet’s question, “To be or not to be”) as described in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, is a thematic cross between Player Piano and “Welcome to the Monkey House” (industrial mechanization leading to unemployment and depression combined with severe overpopulation leading to ethical suicide), complete with Ethical Suicide Parlors outfitted with pretty hostesses and Barca-Loungers. (GBR 2) All serious diseases had been conquered. So death was voluntary, and the government, to encourage volunteers for death, set up a purple-roofed Ethical Suicide Parlor at every major intersection, right next to an orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s. There were pretty hostesses in the parlor, and Barca-Loungers, and Muzak, and a choice of fourteen painless ways to die.
“2BR02B” is also the title of Vonnegut’s short story originally appearing in the January 1962 edition of Worlds of If and later reprinted in the 1999 collection Bagombo Snuff Box. “2BR02B” is another of Vonnegut’s tales that ponders the personal conflicts faced by the beneficiaries of seemingly surreal medical/scientific advances in a world whose social, moral, and legal frameworks have been amended to the dictates of science. “Welcome to the Monkey House,” “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” and “Fortitude” are as baldly dystopian as are the worlds in Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, or Hocus Pocus.
The story is set far in the future. The nation’s population has stabilized at 40 million but exceedingly aged, averaging 129 years old. Ever since a cure for the effects of aging was found, people remained as youthful as they were the day they started the medication. Births, however, can occur only with the agreed-upon exchange of one soul for another—literally. In the case of thrice-blessed father-to-be Edward K. Wehling, Jr., this means needing to come up with three existing souls in exchange for those of his children.
The entirety of the story takes place in the waiting room of the famed Chicago Lying-in Hospital. Edward K. Wehling, Jr., faces a rare dilemma. As the new father of triplets in a zero-sum population scheme agreed to by the nations of the world, he needs to find three people willing to die (probably by visiting an Ethical Suicide Studio) so that his children may live. His maternal grandfather has already volunteered to sacrifice himself.
Despite the seriousness of Wehling’s situation, the brief story’s focus is the slow exposé of both the mural and muralist at work in the waiting room. Titled “The Happy Garden of Life,” The mural he was working on depicted a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed bugs, spread fertilizer. Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves, carried refuse to trash burners.
Never, never, never—not even in medieval Holland or old Japan—had a garden been more formal, been better tended. Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air, and nourishment it could use.
The mural is an obvious metaphor for medicine’s ability to tend to all the necessities of life while gardeners in purple uniforms (like those worn by workers in the worldwide chain of Ethical Suicide Studios) prune the garden of the sick and old growth.
Responsible for the breakthrough in extending life so well, Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s chief obstetrician, a blindingly handsome man, is among the many faces being filled in by the unnamed muralist, himself a man nearly two hundred years old, though he looks no more than thirty-five thanks to the cure. (Benjamin Hitz is the name of Vonnegut’s best friend from childhood; he is also mentioned in the dedication to Jailbird).
Wehling stares at a fixed spot on the wall throughout Dr. Hitz’s diatribe about how much better life is for the planet now that we have advanced so far. However, Wehling displays that “thousand-yard stare,” a term that came about after World War II indicating one’s being shell-shocked, or, in current parlance, suffering with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As Hitz winds down his impromptu lecture, Wehling very clearly knows how to resolve the dilemma of his blessings. “This child of yours—whichever one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control. In a garden like in that mural there.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, it was a hell that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now centuries of peace and plenty stretch before us as far as the imagination cares to travel.”
He smiled luminously.
The smile faded when he saw that Wehling had just drawn a revolver.
Wehling shot Dr. Hitz dead. “There’s room for one—a great big one,” he said.
And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Room for two.”
And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.
Watching this macabre scene from above is the unnamed muralist. The painter sat on the top of his stepladder, looking down reflectively on the sorry scene. He pondered the mournful puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be fruitful . . . to multiply and to live as long as possible—to do all that on a very small planet that would have to last forever.
It is enough to impel the old muralist to end it all. Though he picks up Wehling’s smoking revolver, he decides his nerves can’t handle suicide by his own hand. Instead, he calls the Federal Bureau of Termination for an appointment that afternoon. As the operator is about to finish taking the reservation, she spouts the polite boilerplate ending to all such calls, indicating just how ubiquitous was the process as well as appealing to people’s sense of good citizenship. “Thank you, sir,” said the hostess. “Your city thanks you, your country thanks you, your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.”
27 Bethune Street, New York, NY. The location of Howard W. Campbell’s apartment after the war, and the location of significant portions of Mother Night.
3972 Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. The location of the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped, founded by the Right Reverend William Uranium-8 Wainwright, in Slapstick.
4918 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. The home of Mrs. Harrison C. Conners and her brother, the memorable dwarf, Newt Hoenikker. These are two of the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, inventor of ice-nine, in Cat’s Cradle.
5644 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. The location of the French château built by the title character in “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp.”
“A Night for Love.” Originally published in the November 1954 edition of The Saturday Evening Post and reprinted in Bagombo Snuff Box (1999), the story’s nexus is the full moon beaming down on the jealous sensibilities of the Whitman and Reinbeck families, separated by mere miles and millions of dollars. The moon is also the nexus for the two shining offspring of the Whitman and Reinbeck families, Nancy and Charlie, whose narrowed beams inside his coupe, beneath their families’ jealous moon, guide them to elope.
The more frontal subplot involves spousal jealousies long ago planted by the two early dates of Milly O’Shea Whitman and Louis C. Reinbeck. Turley is a security guard at Reinbeck Abrasives Company, and his wife, Milly, was once a beauty queen. Natalie Reinbeck, the sole wife of Louis C., the mother of young Charlie, and beneficiary of the Reinbeck lifestyle, nonetheless harbors jealousy about her husband’s nearly ancient dates with Milly.
An emotional resolution reaches into the minds if not hearts of the jealous spouses, acknowledging the moon’s capabilities to cause such an emotional ruckus. It is at that moment that Vonnegut serves the anti–Romeo and Juliet moment by having the offspring of social-class appositives live on rebelliously by eloping.
“A Present for Big Saint Nick.” The story first appeared in the December 1954 issue of Argosy magazine as “A Present for Big Nick” and later retitled by Vonnegut “A Present for Big Saint Nick” in the 1999 reprint collection entitled Bagombo Snuff Box. Vonnegut does not account for the minor retitling, but it does leave one to wonder why.
Changing the title elevates the story’s darkly comedic and ironic aspects. The ironic presentation of this anti-Christmas tale is evident without the change in titles. What establishes the story’s power beneath its darkly comedic aspects is revealed by the otherwise mundane plight of workers, their sense of helplessness, lack of self-esteem, and absolute fear in the face of an overbearing and threatening employer. True, not everyone works for the Mafia, but the families victimized in this story were otherwise law-abiding people who had been failing in their civilian employment before working for The Family and Big Nick. One, former middleweight boxer Bernie O’Hare, had (in a sense) been owned by Big Nick through a legal contract (establishing his rights as Bernie’s manager).
The updated title allows the reader to focus on a collage of ironic twists often rendered comedically despite their dark overtones. From the outset we read of Big Saint Nick, heir to the power of Al Capone. His great power is juxtaposed by his masquerade as the altruistic one who knows who has been naughty and who has been nice, preparing the reader for some sort of comedic clowning. But Nick’s Santa charade has but one purpose: to seduce the children of his employees in order to solicit from them in their moment of gratitude and peaceful Christmas greediness the rebellious, disrespectful, and perhaps disloyal sayings of their parents when they are at ease in their own homes. The parents are aware of his strategy and take great care to prepare the children. The tense struggle between Nick’s ego and paranoia versus the parents’ careful preparation of toddlers and grade schoolers lets hang in the balance certain disappearances at the bottom of Lake Michigan or bonus payments for well-indoctrinated answers. All are aware that lives are on the line—except for the children, who would be orphaned if their trained lies fail to convince Big Saint Nick.
Big Nick is played for the clown in the opening scene of the story. Bernie O’Hare and his family accidentally meet Mr. Pullman and his family in a jewelry store where both are looking for grotesque holiday gifts for their boss, a man all recognize as having the worst taste. While both families revel in their knowledge of Nick’s low-class tastes, they delight in their search for the most horrendous cacophony of smashed-up style and substance, debased beyond all reason.
In the meantime, however, both families suffer for their intimate knowledge of Big Nick. Constant contact with the great bully leaves them afraid for their lives, but it has been Nick’s effect on their children that is most troubling. Young Willy O’Hare and Richard Pullman severely suffer Santa-phobia: visibly shaken and stricken with fear at the thought of seeing Santa, even department store Santas or the great and jolly fat man as a small plastic figurine. Mrs. Pullman’s exasperation lets loose for all to hear, including the jewelry salesman, “It’s psychosomatic,” said Mrs. Pullman. “He (her son Richard) snuffles every time he sees a Santa Claus. You can’t bring a child downtown at Christmastime and not have him see a Santa Claus somewhere. One came out of the cafeteria next door just a minute ago. Scared poor Richard half to death.” She later explains Big Saint Nick from the children’s perspective. “Why pretend?” said Mrs. Pullman. “Our Santa Claus is a dirty, vulgar, prying, foulmouthed, ill-smelling fake.”
The clerk’s eyes rolled.
Later at the party, Big Nick, dressed as Santa, abuses his position to bribe the children to get the dirt on their parents. However, direct questioning is exactly what the parents worked so hard to train their children to deflect with complimentary responses. Unfortunately, no one thought while training their children to keep them from offering what they heard other parents say, and their young minds could not grasp Nick’s initial subterfuge. Unless prompted by a direct question, the children had no filters on their responses.
The children’s literal-mindedness, devoid of cunning or artifice, is what begins to elevate the tension in the room. After Richard Pullman and Gwen Zerbe pass their initial interrogations and busy themselves with their gifts, Big Saint Nick turns his attention to Willy O’Hare, son of Bernie, the one-eyed bodyguard who was offered a job in a moment of true compassion by the otherwise malevolent Nick.
Having offered Big Saint Nick nothing but a well-rehearsed answer, Willy’s unassuming young mind slips back to the concerns of a young boy. The situation begins to spiral out of control for everyone as the other children join in on matters they were unable to appreciate. “Willy O’Hare!” thundered Santa Claus. “Tell Santy the trut’, and ya get a swell boat. What’s your old man and old lady say about Big Nick?”
“They say they owe him a lot,” said Willy dutifully. Santa Claus guffawed. “I guess they do, boy! Willy, you know where your old man’d be if it wasn’t for Big Nick? He’d be dancin’ aroun’ in little circles, talking to hisself, wit’out nuttin’ to his name but a flock of canaries in his head. Here, kid, here’s your boat, an’ Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you,” said Willy politely. “Please, could I have a rag?”
“A rag?” said Santa.
“Please,” said Willy. “I wanna wipe off the boat.”
“Willy!” said Bernie and Wanda together.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said Santa. “Let the kid talk. Why you wanna wipe it off, Willy?”
“I want to wipe off the blood and dirt,” said Willy.
“Blood!” said Santa. “Dirt!”
“Willy!” cried Bernie.
“Mama says everything we get from Santa’s got blood on it,” said Willy. He pointed at Mrs. Pullman. “And that lady says he’s dirty.”
“No I didn’t, no I didn’t,” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Yes you did,” said Richard. “I heard you.”
“My father,” said Gwen Zerbe, breaking the dreadful silence, “says kissing Santa Claus isn’t any worse than kissing a dog.”
“Gwen!” cried her father.
“I kiss the dog all the time,” said Gwen, determined to complete her thought, “and I never get sick.”
“I guess we can wash off the blood and dirt when we get home,” said Willy.
“Why, you fresh little punk!” roared Santa Claus, bringing his hand back to hit Willy.
Though Bernie saves the day by grabbing Big Nick’s hand before having the chance to wallop young Willy, all the adults in the room have their lying façades compromised. Nick assures them that knocking off everyone will come cheaply to him. Bernie follows the grab with a professional boxer’s jab at his face, sending Nick into the Christmas tree, and the sight of Big Saint Nick clawing down ornaments as he fell is just the kind of slapstick comedy children cherish.