AN AWESOME JOURNEY
Excerpts from An Awesome Journey
Then she gave Ralph a sly smile. “You arranged to take care of us for more than a hundred years, so Honey, the next hundred is on me.” Becky gave Ralph a long and sensual kiss. Ralph felt his breathing pace increase. Becky stood up, took Ralph’s hand, and spoke softly. “Now let’s go home for that wedding night I’ve waited over a hundred years for.”
“I know you’re a good boy and you’re going to go far in this company. I’ve always helped my employees when I could.” Now the smile was very friendly and very ghastly at the same time. “Well, son, do you want to do the right thing? Do you want to be a good employee? What do you have to say?”
“Well, sir, one answer comes to mind,” Ralph replied briskly with a thin smile of his own, staring directly into Mr. Gold’s face. “Let me tell you what your chances of that happening are, sir. I think you would have a better chance of getting a grizzly bear and stuffing him into a phone booth, and then jacking him off with a hand full of broken glass, than you will of getting me to pay for that death-trap Junker that caught fire or getting me to work here for one more day.” Ralph got up to leave. Mr. Gold’s face was different now. The smile was gone. The jaw was tight. The veins in his neck bulged.
The prostitute ran over to the old man and squatted over him with one knee on each side of his pelvis. She began to feel for a pulse. The three boys ran over to watch the prostitute. Honest John came running back from the office saying, “help is on the way.” Rufus came running with the water. Ralph, the three boys and several others gathered around the old man with the prostitute straddling him.
They saw a very strange sight. The prostitute put her mouth over the old man’s mouth. It looked strange at first, but at closer look, Ralph could see she was breathing into the old man’s mouth.
“Well, Rufus, I see you know how to play like a man. I’ll see your hundred and raise you...” Jose counted out what was left in front of him, “... three hundred thirty-five dollars. That’s the raise, boy, three hundred thirty-five. You gonna call or fold?”
The room grew very quiet. But Rufus was in this game on his own. An unwritten rule of poker dictates that if you get in trouble, it’s just tough. Anything else would be an insult. None of the others liked what Jose was doing, but nobody said a thing. No one moved. They all sat silently and looked at Rufus. His head was down on the table again. His eyes were half-open. His breathing was even, but shallow.
Jose stared at Rufus. He was about to get even. In a loud voice he said, “Three hundred thirty-five dollars! Call or fold?” Rufus seemed to wake a little. He lifted his head a couple of inches off the table. “Ole Ruf will call.” Rufus pushed the whole pile of money in front of him toward the center of the table. He did not count it. It was obvious there was more than three hundred thirty-five dollars. Jose acknowledged with a nod and turned his down cards face up. “Three jacks and a pair of tens. Full house again, boy. Read ‘em and weep.” Jose was grinning from ear to ear.
Rufus could not read ‘em. He could not weep. His knees had buckled, and he had slid off his chair to the floor. He would not wake up until well into the next day. Rufus’ hand lay on the table. Of the four up cards, his highest was a nine. No one had seen the down cards—unfortunately, not even Rufus apparently. Jose stood on the other side of the table, still grinning. “Someone turn that boy’s hand over so we can see what he had, and I can take my money.” Honest John picked up Rufus’ three down cards and flipped them over. There were three more nines.
After several seconds of shocked silence, the whole room erupted in a shout of laughter.
Honest John looked at Jose and spoke in a monotone. “Four nines, you lose again. Reminds me of what General Browning said to Monty when we messed up liberating Holland. ‘Guess you went a bridge too far.’” Then he carefully pushed the pot over to where Rufus had been sitting. The men continued to laugh. Jose had risen from his chair and was bending over the table shaking. His face was constricted and the veins in his neck stood out. He whined, “Those damn cards weren’t shuffled good enough!”
John was nearly incapacitated with laughter. “You shuffled ‘em yourself, Jose,” he choked out. Then he laughed harder. Jose put his hand to his face. “Madre De Dios, that’s right, I did.” His mouth was twisting into a grin. Then he started to laugh, too.
Now the men laughed even louder. Jose laughed so hard he had to sit down. The more Jose laughed, the more the other men laughed. The more the other men laughed, the more Jose laughed. The laughter filled the building and shook the walls. The men laughed until they had tears in their eyes. When one of them ran out of laughter, he had only to look at Jose and he would start up again. This went on until none of the men could stand up.
The conversation was interrupted as two orderlies came rushing up the hall pushing an empty gurney. Mr. Green turned to them and briskly commanded, “You men get down to the hospital morgue right away and get this body.” He handed them a slip of paper. “I want you to help load it to Doctor Smith’s, uh, Miss Smith’s, car. And hurry, we don’t have any time to spare.” The two men hurried down the aisle followed by Sara Ann and Honest John. Honest John was smiling to himself. That Sara Ann, he thought, she was an amazing woman.
The room was inflated with invisible, malicious thoughts. Ralph could almost hear them: “A young punk who gets all the breaks in life. Pretty boys always have it easy. First, he takes my management job, and next thing you know, he’ll be screwing my daughter. God, he’s about her age. Probably doesn’t know a thing about the car business. Probably is related to the owner. Probably is screwing the owner’s daughter. Probably doesn’t shave yet.”
It was now or never. Ralph smiled, “Good morning, men. I’m Ralph Dombrowski. I’m sure you all know by now I’m the new manager here. I’d like to start by telling you a story about a manager.” Ralph looked at the men. They looked at him. There was complete quiet. “There used to be a horseback riding stable several miles north of here,” Ralph began. “When I was younger, I used to go there on Sundays and rent a horse. One day, they gave me a real good one, the best I’d ever had. When I got back to the stable, they charged me five dollars for an hour’s ride. I asked the cowboy there what the horse’s name was. He told me ‘Salesman.’”
“About a month later I went back. I saw the same horse standing in the corral and pointed him out. They saddled him up and I went out for an hour’s ride. When I got back, they charged me ten dollars. Needless to say, I wanted to know why the rate had doubled. The cowboy told me the horse was so good his boss said to double the rate on that horse and change his name to ‘Assistant Manager.’ A couple of the men smiled crookedly. Ralph felt the tension ease a little. He went on. “Well, I didn’t say anything, just paid and went home.”
About another month later, I went back. The cowboy recognized me and met me as I walked up. He told me I couldn’t rent that horse anymore. When I asked him why, he said, “About a week ago the boss told me to double the price on that horse again, so I did. But I made the mistake of changing his name from ‘Assistant Manager’ to ‘Manager.’ And from that day on, all he’s done is sit on his butt and bray like a jackass.” A couple of men chuckled, then laughed. Then a few more men joined in and the whole room laughed.
The tension broke.
Ralph did not so much as smile. He got out of his chair and sat easily on the corner of his gigantic desk. He said seriously, “I want you men to know that one thing I’m not going to do is sit back on my butt and bray like a jackass. I’m going to work hard. I’ll be here when you get here in the morning, and I’ll still be here when you leave.” Ralph tried to make eye contact as he talked. He watched to see who was taking him seriously, and who wasn’t. He tried to estimate who would cooperate with him and who would make trouble.
He fidgeted a little. “Do you think Cynthia will be home soon? What time does she usually get in?” Tammy smiled. “Oh, she’ll be home any minute. I left a note on her door.” Ralph sat there quietly, still uneasy. Tammy’s sultry aroma seemed stronger and stronger. Ralph was spellbound. Her wide eyes were alluring enough, but her legs were more tempting. Ralph squirmed uncomfortably. This was unfair. What did she think he was, a palace eunuch?
Tammy slid closer. She spoke softly, her face inches away. “Ralph, I have a confession to make. I didn’t put a note on Cynthia’s door.” Her eyes were very green and had tiny flecks of gold in them. Ralph shifted. His heart began to beat faster. He had misjudged again. He put out a hand and timidly brushed back a wisp of Tammy’s hair. Tammy slowly slipped her arm to the lamp on the table behind the couch. She turned off the light. The room was shadowy with a faint light coming from the kitchen. She pressed against him and after a bit of fumbling, her mouth captured his. Her tongue was moist and demanding. Ralph obeyed. When the kiss was over, Ralph sighed. He was breathing eagerly. In the darkened room his vision slightly recovered. He stroked the back of Tammy’s neck, and his gaze fell to her inviting legs. Tammy whispered, "Where I come from, when they turn the light out, it’s either time to go to bed or time to go home.” Her voice was sultry and teasing. “Are you going to send me home, Ralph?”
This would be only the third freezing of a human being ever done. Ralph was to watch closely, so the next time he would be capable of helping more.
Additional members were now arriving and soon the laboratory was bustling with people, despite the lateness of the hour. Half an hour after Ralph arrived, a station wagon pulled up with Sara Ann, Budder, and Wile in it, shining its headlights on the garage bay door. Honest John’s body was in back on a stretcher, packed in ice. As soon as the station wagon was inside the lab bay, the team rolled a gurney out to it and transferred the body, ice and all. Ralph assisted. The stretcher was surprisingly heavy. Ralph helped again as the body was transferred to the table in the suspension preparation room. The team covered it with more icepacks. Ralph still had not seen John’s face since the hospital. Sara Ann and Dr. Hankshaw had quickly changed into green surgical gowns.
Ralph watched as Hankshaw began making a long incision in the groin of the body.
Hankshaw explained the procedure rapidly to Ralph as he worked, seeming to talk in order to reduce the tension. “We injected him in the station wagon with a lot of citrate of sodium,” Hankshaw explained. “That’ll keep his blood from clotting. Now we’ll replace the blood with a solution of glycerin and plasma, using the pump. That will reduce brain edema and keep a lot of the water in the brain from freezing, even at liquid nitrogen temperature.”
Ralph was puzzled. “You don’t mean the tissue will stay soft?”
“No, Ralph. It’ll turn hard as rock, but if you know any geology, some of it will be like obsidian rather than granite. The insides of the cells won’t freeze, thanks to some new chemicals we’ve been testing and that we just learned to add, the cells just get stiff, like glass solidifying. No ice crystals. Or that’s the theory, anyway. Seems to work fine on dogs.” Hankshaw had inserted a large cannula into the groin incision, and now he began to sew. “Of course, some extracellular water will freeze. Can’t help that. But we hope it won’t do too much damage. What damage it does ought to be fixable by doctors of the future if things aren’t stirred up too much. “I’ve read about it in some of our Society’s papers.”
Ralph hoped his feelings were not showing in his voice and in his eyes above the mask. John’s skin was the color of old ivory. After Hankshaw finished with the tubes in the groin, he began making an incision in the dead yellowish skin of John’s chest. Ralph found he could not watch anymore, and had to leave the room.
In April, Ralph was invited to the Gold’s house for dinner. Becky told Ralph it would be a special dinner because it was the first day of Passover. “Don’t forget to bring something over, Ralphy,” she reminded him. “It’s customary to bring a gift—something Jewish, something kosher.”
Ralph said, “Okay. How about a new Cadillac?”
Even if we could get the body, and even if we froze it, the Golds would be here in an hour with a court order and take Becky out and bury her anyway. Then they would sue us and probably put us out of business. We’d lose our right to operate. We’d lose all of our frozen members, including Honest John.”
“But what if we could get the body without anyone finding out?”
Sara Ann had sighed. “Same thing, unfortunately. There are some secrets that just don’t keep. An unexplained body is one of them. You’ve seen how carefully we have to tend the Dewars. Every so often the vacuum on one goes bad and we have to transfer the body quickly to another Dewar. Dewars have a limited life span, and people naturally see what’s in them from time to time. No way to stop it. After a while, the people in this organization would begin to wonder about the body of the young girl we have here. There would be talk. Eventually, the police would hear the rumors and the coroner would be out. The body would be identified in short order, and then the same thing would happen. We’d lose Honest John and everyone else.” Ralph had understood. Unless he could convince the Golds to freeze Becky, it was the end of the line. And he didn’t think he could.
“Ralph, Sara Ann had spoken more softly, putting her hand on his arm. Her cool gray eyes had looked into his. “There may be one more way, even yet.”
“If you can get Becky’s body for just an hour or two, we can remove her brain. We can freeze that. A brain has no fingerprints, so it presents no long-term liability to the organization if you and I do the procedure and neither of us talks."
Ralph’s enterprises grew. As they did, he became more and more alienated from the employees and colleagues. He was too rich, too powerful.
As time went on, Ralph became concerned about his state of mind. It seemed everyone humored him. “Yes, Mr. Dombrowski. No, Mr. Dombrowski. Whatever you say, Mr. Dombrowski.” Ralph found he had to watch his holdings more now, also. No one ever questioned him. Everyone agreed with him, no matter what, even if the decision he was about to make was a bad one. And everyone wanted money. The charities hounded him to death. Friends were always coming to him with plans. If he would just invest in this or that, if he would just help them out, people would agree with him on everything and anything. Ralph thought he was going mad.
Ralph was out of his seat again. Bang! Bang! Bang! The judge banged his little wooden hammer, “Ralph, control yourself or I’ll find you in contempt of court!” the judge fairly shrieked.
“I don’t care,” Ralph shot back. “He’s got it wrong, and I don’t give a damn what you do to me, you old fart.”
The courtroom had become deathly quiet. The judge replied in a quieter voice that concealed deadly malice. “I’ll give you sixty seconds to apologize, Mr. Dombrowski, and if you don’t, I’ll find you in contempt.”
Ralph glared back. “I have my principles. I’ll see you in Hell before I apologize.”
Ralph leaned over to Sal, who was filing his nails, and whispered, “What’s the penalty for contempt?” Sal whispered, “They throw you in a lake of fire.”
Ralph stood straight and conceded with sincere repentance, “Your honor. I apologize.”
“Because the date today is April 16th in the year 2107,” said the doctor. “You were cryogenically suspended at the age of fifty-one in 1988. You’ve been asleep more than one-hundred years. You’ve been resuscitated and restored. Your brain tumor is gone, and you’re young again. And now for the good news, this is only the beginning, my friend.” Ralph couldn’t speak. Either he was dreaming or it had worked, and his plan to journey to the future had paid off. The doctor went on…
The four people left. Then Charlie came over to Ralph and asked, “Is it okay if I am listening while you and your friends are talking. I mean I don’t know why this is, but I get a strange feeling when I hear the problems you are dealing with and I believe that feeling might be what you humans call ‘sad.’ And I want to help you in some way. Do you think that is okay?”
“Sure Charlie, adjust your hearing so you can hear from across the room, or even from another room. I don’t mind if you listen in.”
“Can I make suggestions if ideas come to me?”
“Sure Charlie. I would like to hear any suggestions you have.”
“Ralph, do you think I have a mind like a human has?”
“I do think you have a mind, Charlie. I consider you a friend. Is that okay with you?”
“Yes, that is the most wonderful thing any human has ever said to me. Thank you. I wish my eye cameras had tear buds, so I could cry right now. I mean I feel so happy it feels appropriate.”
“Some people can be emotionally happy and not cry, Charlie. I think you may be just as human as we humans are, just a different style of a human—maybe even a better type of human than we regular humans are.”
“Yes Charlie, what can I do for you?”
“Could I hug you, like humans do?”
“Sure Charlie, come give me a hug.”
Slowly, and cautiously Charlie walked towards Ralph, arms extended. He slowly put his arms around Ralph and squeezed very softly, and then asked. “Was that a good hug, Ralph?” Then Charlie stepped back.
“It’s the best hug I ever had. Now let’s call it a day and get some rest.”
Charlie slowly walked over to the corner and turned to face the room. He stood there motionless, just as he did every night, charging his batteries, even though they were good for five years after each charge. Ralph thought he noticed Charlie’s normally horizontal mouth turned up at the edges, in something approaching a smile.