THE OLD DIE RICH
"You again, Weldon," the Medical Examiner said wearily. I nodded pleasantly and looked around the shabby room with a feeling of hopeful eagerness. Maybe this time, I thought, I'd get the answer. I had the same sensation I always had in these places?ªthe quavery senile despair at being closed in a room with the single shaky chair, tottering bureau, dim bulb hanging from the ceiling, the flaking metal bed. There was a woman on the bed, an old woman with white hair thin enough to show the tight-drawn scalp, her face and body so emaciated that the flesh between the bones formed parchment pockets. The M.E. was going over her as if she were a side of beef that he had to put a federal grade stamp on, grumbling meanwhile about me and Sergeant Lou Pape, who had brought me here. "When are you going to stop taking Weldon around to these cases, Sergeant?" the M.E. demanded in annoyance. "Damned actor and his morbid curiosity!" For the first time, Lou was stung into defending me. "Mr. Weldon is a friend of mine?ªI used to be an actor, too, before I joined the force?ªand he's a follower of Stanislaysky." The beat cop who'd reported the D.O.A. whipped around at the door. "A Red?" I let Lou Pape explain what the Stanislaysky method of acting was, while I sat down on the one chair and tried to apply it. Stanislaysky was the great pre-Revolution Russian stage director whose idea was that actors had to think and feel like the characters they portrayed so they could be them. A Stanislayskian works out everything about a character right up to the point where a play starts?ªwhere he was born, when, his relationship with his parents, education, childhood, adolescence, maturity, attitudes toward men, women, sex, money, success, including incidents. The play itself is just an extension of the life history created by the actor. How does that tie in with the old woman who had died? Well, I'd had the cockeyed kind of luck to go bald at 25 and I'd been playing old men ever since. I had them down pretty well?ªit's not just a matter of shuffling around all hunched over and talking in a high cracked voice, which is cornball acting, but learning what old people are like inside?ªand these cases I talked Lou Pape into taking me on were studies in senility. I wanted to understand them, know what made them do what they did, feel the compulsion that drove them to it. The old woman on the bed, for instance, had $32,000 in five bank accounts . . . and she'd died of starvation. You've come across such cases in the news, at least a dozen a year, and wondered who they were and why they did it. But you read the items, thought about them for a little while, and then forgot them. My interest was professional;
I made my living playing old people and I had to know as much about them as I could. That's how it started off, at any rate. But the more cases I investigated, the less sense they made to me, until finally they were practically an obsession. Look, they almost always have around $30,000 pinned to their underwear, hidden in mattresses, parked in the bank, yet they starve themselves to death. If I could understand them, I could write a play or have one written; I might really make a name for myself, even get a Hollywood contract, maybe, if I could act them as they should be acted. So I sat there in the lone chair, trying to reconstruct the character of the old woman who had died rather than spend a single cent of her $32,000 for food. Malnutrition induced by senile psychosis," the M.E. said, writing out the death certificate. He turned to me. "There's no mystery to it, Weldon. They starve because they're less afraid of death than digging into their savings." I'd been imagining myself growing weak from hunger and trying to decide that I ought to eat even if it cost me something. I came out of it and said, "That's what you keep telling me." "I keep hoping it'll convince you so you won't come around any more. What are the chances, Weldon?"
"Depends. I will when I'm sure you're right. I'm not." He shrugged disgustedly, ordered the wicker basket from the meat wagon and had the old woman carried out. He and the beat cop left with the basket team. He could at least have said good-by. He never did, though. A fat lot I cared about his attitude or dogmatic medical opinion. Getting inside this character was more important. The setting should have helped; it was depressing, rank with the feel of solitary desperation and needless death. Lou Pape stood looking out the one dirty window, waiting patiently for me. I let my joints stiffen as if they were thirty years older and more worn out than they were, and empathized myself into a dilemma between getting still weaker from hunger and drawing a little money out of the bank. I worked at it for half an hour or so with the deep concentration you acquire when you use the Stanislaysky method. Then I gave up. "The M.E. is wrong, Lou," I said. "It doesn't feel right." Lou turned around from the window. He'd stood there all that time without once coughing or scratching or doing anything else that might have distracted me. "He knows his business, Mark." "But he doesn't know old people." "What is it you don't get?" he prompted, helping me dig my way through a characterization like the trained Stanislayskian he was ?ª and still would have been if he hadn't gotten so sick of the insecurity of acting that he'd become a cop. "Can't money be more important to a psychotic than eating?" "Sure," I agreed. "Up to a point. Undereating, yes. Actual starvation, no." "Why not?" "You and the M.E. think it's easy to starve to death. It isn't: Not when you can buy day-old bread at the bakeries, soup bones for about a nickel a pound, wilted vegetables that groceries are glad to get rid of. Anybody who's willing to eat
that stuff can stay alive on nearly nothing a day. Nearly nothing, Lou, and hunger is a damned potent instinct. I can understand hating to spend even those few cents. I can't see going without food altogether." He took out a cigarette; he hadn't until then because he didn't want to interrupt my concentration. "Maybe they get too weak to go out after old bread and meat bones and wilted vegetables." "It still doesn't figure." I got up off the shaky chair, my joints now really stiff from sitting in it. "Do you know how long it takes to die of starvation?" "That depends on age, health, amount of activity?ª" "Nuts!" I said. "It would take weeks!" "So it takes weeks. Where's the problem ?ª if there is one?" I lit the pipe I'd learned to smoke instead of cigarettes?ªold men seem to use pipes more than anything else, though maybe it'll be different in the next generation. More cigarette smokers now, you see, and they'd stick to the habit unless the doctor ordered them to cut it out. "Did you ever try starving for weeks, Lou?" I asked. "No. Did you?" "In a way. All these cases you've been taking me on f or the last couple of years?ªI've tried to be them. But let's say it's possible to die of starvation when you have thousands of dollars put away. Let's say you don't think of scrounging off food stores or working out a way of freeloading or hitting soup lines. Let's say you stay in your room and slowly starve to death." He slowly picked a fleck of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away, his sharp black eyes poking holes in the situation I'd built up for him. But he wasn't ready to say anything yet. "There's charity," I went on, "relief?ªexcept for those who have their dough in banks, where it can be checked on?ªold age pension, panhandling, cadging off neighbors." He said, "We know these cases are hermits. They don't make contact with anybody." "Even when they're starting to get real hungry?" "You've got something, Mark, but that's the wrong tack," he said thoughtfully. "The point is that they don't have to make contact; other people know them or about them. Somebody would check after a few days or a week?ªthe janitor, the landlord, someone in the house or the neighborhood."
"So they'd be found before they died." "You'd think so, wouldn't you?" he agreed reluctantly. "They don't generally have friends, and the relatives are usually so distant, they hardly know these old people and whether they're alive or not. Maybe that's what threw us off. But you don't need friends and relatives to start wondering, and investigate when you haven't shown up for a while." He lifted his head and looked at me. "What does that prove, Mark?" "That there's something wrong with these cases. I want to find out what." I got Lou to take me down to Headquarters, where he let me see the bankbooks the old woman had left. "She took damned good care of them," I said. "They look almost new." "Wouldn't you take damned good care of the most important thing in the world to you?" he asked. "You've seen the hoards of money the others
leave. Same thing." I peered closely at the earliest entry, April 23, 1907, $150. My eyes aren't that bad; I was peering at the ink. It was dark, unfaded. I pointed it out to Lou. "From not being exposed to daylight much," he said. "They don't haul out the bankbooks or money very often, I guess." "And that adds up for you? I can see them being psychotics all their lives . . . but not senile psychotics." "They hoarded, Mark. That adds up for me." "Funny," I said, watching him maneuver his cigarette as if he loved the feel of it, drawing the smoke down and letting it out in plumes of different shapes, from rings to slender streams. What a living he could make doing cigarette commercials on TV! "I can see you turn into one of these cases, Lou." He looked startled for a second, but then crushed out the butt carefully so he could watch it instead of me. "Yeah? How so?" "You've been too scared by poverty to take a chance. You know you could do all right acting, but you don't dare giving up this crummy job. Carry that far enough and you try to stop spending money, then cut out eating, and finally wind up dead of starvation in a cheap room." "Me? I'd never get that scared of being broke!" "At the age of 70 or 80?" "Especially then! I'd probably tear loose for a while and then buy into a home for the aged." I wanted to grin, but I didn't. He'd proved my point. He'd also shown that he was as bothered by these old people as I was. "Tell me, Lou. If somebody kept you from dying, would you give him any dough for it, even if you were a senile psychotic?" I could see him using the Stanislaysky method to feel his way to the answer. He shook his head. "Not while I was alive. Will it, maybe, not give it." "How would that be as a motive?" He leaned against a metal filing cabinet. "No good, Mark. You know what a hell of a time we have tracking down relatives to give the money to, because these people don't leave wills. The few relatives we find are always surprised when they get their inheritance?ªmost of them hardly remember dear old whoever-it-was that died and left it to them. All the other estates eventually go to the State treasury, unclaimed." "Well, it was an idea." I opened the oldest bankbook again. "Anybody ever think of testing the ink, Lou?" ' "What for? The banks' records always check. These aren't forgeries, if that's what you're thinking." "I don't know what I'm thinking," I admitted. "But I'd like to turn a chemist loose on this for a little while." "Look, Mark, there's a lot I'm willing to do for you, and I think I've done plenty, but there's a limit?ª" I let him explain why he couldn't let me borrow the book and then waited while he figured out how it could be done and did it. He was still grumbling when he helped me pick a chemist out of the telephone
directory and went along to the lab with me. "But don't get any wrong notions," he said on the way. "I have to protect State property, that's all, because I signed for it and I'm responsible." "Sure, sure," I agreed,
to humor him. "If you're not curious, why not just wait outside for me?" He gave me one of those white-tooth grins that he had no right to deprive women audiences of. "I could do that, but I'd rather see you make a sap of yourself." I turned the bankbook over to the chemist and we waited for the report. When it came, it had to be translated. The ink was typical of those used 50 years ago. Lou Pape gave me a jab in the ribs at that. But then the chemist said that, according to the amount of oxidation, it seemed fresh enough to be only a few months or years old, and it was Lou's turn to get jabbed. Lou pushed him about the aging, asking if it couldn't be the result of unusually good care. The chemist couldn't say?ªthat depended on the kind of care; an airtight compartment, perhaps, filled with one of the inert gases, or a vacuum. They hadn't been kept that way, of course, so Lou looked as baffled as I felt. He took the bankbook and we went out to the street. "See what I mean?" I asked quietly, not wanting to rub it in. "I see something, but I don't know what. Do you?" "I wish I could say yes. It doesn't make any more sense than anything else about these cases." "What do you do next?" "Damned if I know. There are thousands of old people in the city. Only a few of them take this way out. I have to try to find them before they do." "If they're loaded, they won't say so, Mark, and there's no way of telling them from those who are down and out." I rubbed my pipe disgruntledly against the side of my nose to oil it. "Ain't this a beaut of a problem? I wish I liked problems. I hate them." Lou had to get back on duty. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do except worry my way through this tangle. He headed back to Headquarters and I went over to the park and sat in the sun, warming myself and trying to think like a senile psychotic who would rather die of starvation than spend a few cents for food. I didn't get anywhere, naturally. There are too many ways of beating starvation, too many chances of being found before it's too late. And the fresh ink, over half a century old ???? I took to hanging around banks, hoping I'd see someone come in with an old bankbook that had fresh ink from 50 years before. Lou was some help there ?ª he convinced the guards and tellers that I wasn't an old-looking guy casing the place for a gang, and even got the tellers to watch out for particularly dark ink in ancient bankbooks. I stuck at it for a month, although there were a few stage calls that didn't turn out right, and one radio and two TV parts, which did and kept me going. I was almost glad the stage parts hadn't been given to me; they'd have interrupted my outside work. After a month without a thing turning up at the banks, though, I went back to my two rooms in the theatrical hotel one night, tired and discouraged, and I found Lou there. I expected him to give me another talk on dropping the whole thing; he'd been doing that for a couple of weeks now, every time we got together. I felt too low to put up an argument. But Lou was holding back his
excitement?ªacting like a cop, you know, instead of projecting his feelings ?ª and he couldn't haul me out to his car as fast as he probably wanted me to go. "Been trying to get in touch with you all day, Mark. Some old guy was found wandering around, dazed and suffering from malnutrition, with $17,000 in cash inside the lining of his jacket." "Alive?" I asked, shocked right into eagerness again. "Just barely. They're trying intravenous feeding to pull him through. I don't think he'll make it." "For God's sake, let's get there before he conks out!"
Lou raced me to the City Hospital and up to the ward. There was a scrawny old man in a bed, nothing but a papery skin stretched thin over a face like a skull and a body like a Halloween skeleton, shivering as if he was cold. I knew it wasn't the cold. The medics were injecting a heart stimulant into him and he was vibrating like a rattletrap car racing over a gravel road. "Who are you?" I practically yelled, grabbing his skinny arm. "What happened to you?" He went on shaking with his eyes closed and his mouth open. "Ah, hell!" I said, disgusted. "He's in a coma." "He might start talking," Lou told me. "I fixed it up so you can sit here and listen in case he does." "So I can listen to delirious ravings, you mean." Lou got me a chair and put it next to the bed. "What are you kicking about? This is the first live one you've seen, isn't it? That ought to be good enough for you." He looked as annoyed as a director. "Besides, you can get biographical data out of delirium that you'd never get if he was conscious." He was right, of course. Not only data, but attitudes, wishes, resentments that would normally be repressed. I wasn't thinking of acting at the moment, though. Here was somebody who could tell me what I wanted to know . . . only he couldn't talk. Lou went to the door. "Good luck," he said, and went out. I sat down and stared at the old man, willing him to talk. I don't have to ask if you've ever done that; everybody has. You keep thinking over and over, getting more and more tense, "Talk, damn you, talk!" until you find that every muscle in your body is a fist and your jaws are aching because you've been clenching your teeth so hard. You might just as well not bother, but once in a while a coincidence makes you think you've done it. Like now. The old man sort of came to. That is, he opened his eyes and looked around without seeing anything, or it was so far away and long ago that nobody else could see what he saw. I hunched forward on the chair and willed harder than ever. Nothing happened. He stared at the ceiling and through and beyond me. Then he closed his eyes again and I slumped back, defeated and bitter?ªbut that was when he began talking. There were a couple of women, though they might have been little girls in his childhood, and he had his troubles with them. He was praying for a toy train, a roadster, to pass his tests, to keep from being fired, to be less lonely, and back to toys again. He hated his father, and his mother was too busy with church bazaars and such
to pay much attention to him. There was a sister: she died when he was a kid. He was glad she died, hoping maybe now his mother would notice him, but he was also filled with guilt because he was glad. Then somebody, he felt, was trying to shove him out of his job. The intravenous feeding kept dripping into his vein and he went on rambling. After ten or fifteen minutes of it, he fell asleep. I felt so disappointed that I could have slapped him awake, only it wouldn't have done any good. Smoking would have helped me relax, but it wasn't allowed, and I didn't dare go outside for one, for fear he might revive again and this time come up to the present. "Broke!" he suddenly shrieked, trying to sit up. I pushed him down gently, and he went on in frightful terror, "Old and poor, nowhere to go, nobody wants me, can't make a living, read the ads every day, no jobs for old men." He blurted through weeks, months, years?ªI don't know?ªof fear and despair. And finally he came to something that made his face glow like a radium dirt. "An ad. No experience needed. Good salary." His face got dark and awful. All he added was, "El Greco," or something that sounded like it, and then he went into terminal breathing. I rang for the nurse and she went for the doctor. I couldn't stand the long moments when the old man's chest stopped moving, the abrupt frantic gulps of air followed by no breath at all. I wanted to get away from it, but I had to wait for whatever more he might say. It didn't come. His eyes fogged and rolled up and he stopped taking those spasmodic strangling breaths. The nurse came back with the doctor, who felt his pulse and shook his head. She pulled the blanket over the old man's face. I left, feeling sick. I'd learned things I already knew about hate and love and fear and hope and frustration. There was an ad in it somewhere, but I had no way of telling if it had been years ago or
recently. And a name that sounded like "El Greco." That was a Spanish painter of four-five hundred years ago. Had the old guy been remembering a picture he'd seen? No, he'd come up at least close to the present. The ad seemed to solve his problem about being broke. But what about the $17,000 that had been found in the lining of his jacket? He hadn't mentioned that. Of course, being a senile psychotic, he could have considered himself broke even with that amount of money. None coming in, you see. That didn't add up, either. His was the terror of being old and jobless. If he'd had money, he would have figured how to make it last, and that would have come through in one way or another. There was the ad, there was his hope, and there was this El Greco. A Greek restaurant, maybe, where he might have been bumming his meals. But where did the $17,000 fit in? Lou Pape was too fed up with the whole thing to discuss it with me. He just gave me the weary eye and said, "You're riding this too hard, Mark. The guy was talking from fever. How do I know what figures and what doesn't when I'm dealing with insanity or
delirium?" "But you admit there's plenty about these cases that doesn't figure?" "Sure. Did you take a look at the condition the world is in lately? Why should these old people be any exception?" I couldn't blame him. He'd pulled me in on the cases with plenty of trouble to himself, just to do me a favor. Now he was fed up. I guess it wasn't even that?ªhe thought I was ruining myself, at least financially and maybe worse, by trying to run down the problem. He said he'd be glad to see me any time and gas about anything or help me with whatever might be bothering me, if he could, but not these cases any more. He told me to lay off them, and then he left me on my own. I don't know what he could have done, actually. I didn't need him to go through the want ads with me, which I was doing every day, figuring there might be something in the ravings about an ad. I spent more time than I liked checking those slanted at old people, only to find they were supposed to become messengers and such. One brought, me to an old brownstone five-story house in the East 80s. I got on line with the rest of the applicants?ªthere were men and women, all decrepit, all looking badly in need of money?ªand waited my turn. My face was lined with collodion wrinkles and I wore an antique shiny suit and rundown shoes. I didn't look more prosperous or any younger than they did. I finally came up to the woman who was doing the interviewing. She sat behind a plain office desk down in the main floor hall, with a pile of application cards in front of her and a ballpoint pen in one strong, slender hand. She had red hair with gold lights in it and eyes so pale blue that they would have seemed the same color as the whites if she'd been on the stage. Her face would have been beautiful except for her rigid control of expression; she smiled abruptly, shut it off just like that, looked me over with all the impersonality and penetration of an X-ray from the soles to the bald head, exactly as she'd done with the others. But that skin! If it was as perfect as that all over her slim, stiffly erect, proudly shaped body, she had no business off the stage! "Name, address, previous occupation, social security number?" she asked in a voice with good clarity, resonance and diction. She wrote it all down while I gave the information to her. Then she asked me for references, and I mentioned Sergeant Lou Pape. "Fine," she said. "We'll get in touch with you if anything comes up. Don't call us?ªwe'll call you." I hung around to see who'd be picked. There was only one, an old man, two ahead of me in the line, who had no social security number, no references, not even any relatives or friends she could have checked up on him with. Damn! Of course that was what she wanted! Hadn't all the starvation cases been people without social security, references, either no friends and relatives or those they'd lost track of? I'd pulled a blooper, but how was I to know until too late? Well, there was a way of making it right. When it was good and dark that evening, I stood on the corner and watched
the lights in the
brownstone house. The ones on the first two floors went out, leaving only those on the third and fourth. Closed for the day ???? or open for business? I got into a building a few doors down by pushing a button and waiting until the buzzer answered, then racing up to the roof while some man yelled down the stairs to find out who was there. I crossed the tops of the two houses between and went down the fire escape. It wasn't easy, though not as tough as you might imagine. The fact is that I'm a whole year younger than Lou Pape, even if I could play his grandpa professionally. I still have muscles left and I used them to get down the fire escape at the rear of the house. The fourth floor room I looked into had some kind of wire mesh cage and some hooded machinery. Nobody there. The third floor room was the redhead's. She was coming out of the bathroom with a terrycloth bathrobe and a towel turban on when I looked in. She slid the robe off and began dusting herself with powder. That skin did cover her. She turned and moved toward a vanity against the wall that I was on the other side of. The next thing I knew, the window was flung up and she had a gun on me. "Come right in?ªMr. Weldon, isn't it?" she said in that completely controlled voice of hers. One day her control would crack, I thought irrelevantly, and the pieces would be found from Dallas to North Carolina. "I had an idea you seemed more curious than was justified by a help-wanted ad." "A man my age doesn't get to see many pretty girls," I told her, making my own voice crack pathetically in a senile whinny. She motioned me into the room. When I was inside, I saw a light over the window blinking red. It stopped the moment I was in the room. A silent burglar alarm. She let her pale blue eyes wash insolently over me. "A man your age can see all the pretty girls he wants to. You're not old. "And you use a rinse," I retorted. She ignored it. "I specifically advertised for old people. Why did you apply?" It had happened so abruptly that I hadn't had a chance to use the Stanislaysky method to feel old in the presence of a beautiful nude woman. I don't even know if it would have worked. Nothing's perfect. "I needed a job awful bad," I answered sullenly, knowing it sounded like an ad lib. She smiled with more contempt than humor. "You had a job, Mr. Weldon. You were very busy trying to find out why senile psychotics starve themselves to death." "How did you know that?" I asked, startled. "A little investigation of my own. I also happen to know you didn't tell your friend Sergeant Pape that you were going to be here tonight." That was a fact, too. I hadn't felt sure enough that I'd found the answer to call him about it. Looking at the gun in her steady hand, I was sorry I hadn't. "But you did find out I own this building, that my name is May Roberts, and that I'm the daughter of the late Dr. Anthony Roberts, the physicist," she continued. "Is there anything else you want me to tell you about yourself ?" "I know enough already. I'm more
interested in you and the starvation cases. If you weren't connected with them, you wouldn't have known I was investigating them." "That's obvious, isn't it?" She reached for a cigarette on the vanity and used a lighter with her free hand. The big mirror gave me another view of her lovely body, but that was beginning to interest me less than the gun. I thought of making a grab for it. There was too much distance between us, though, and she knew better than to take her eyes off me while she was lighting up. "I'm not afraid of professional detectives, Mr. Weldon. They deal only with facts and every one of them will draw the same conclusions from a given set of circumstances. I don't like amateurs. They guess too much. They don't stick to reality. The result?ª" her pale eyes chilled and her shapely mouth went hard?ª"is that they are likely to get too close to the truth." I wanted a smoke myself, but I wasn't willing to make a move toward the pipe in my jacket. "I may be close to the truth, Miss Roberts, but I don't know what the devil it is. I still don't know how you're
tied in with the senile psychotics or why they starve with all that money. You could me go and I wouldn't have a thing on you." She glanced down at herself and laughed for real for the first time. "You wouldn't, would you? On the other hand, you know where I'm working from and could nag Sergeant Pape into getting a search warrant. It wouldn't incriminate me, but it would be inconvenient. I don't care to be inconvenienced." "Which means what?" "You want to find out my connection with senile psychotics. I intend to show you." "How?" She gestured dangerously with the gun. "Turn your face to the wall and stay that way while I get dressed. Make one attempt to turn around before I tell you to and I'll shoot you. You're guilty of housebreaking, you know. It would be a little inconvenient for me to have an investigation . . . but not as inconvenient as for you." I faced the wall, feeling my stomach braid itself into a tight, painful knot of fear. Of what, I didn't know yet, only that old people who had something to do with her died of starvation. I wasn't old, but that didn't seem very comforting. She was the most frigid, calculating, deadly woman I'd ever met. That alone was enough to scare hell out of me. And there was the problem of what she was capable of. Hearing the sounds of her dressing behind me, I wanted to lunge around and rush her, taking a chance that she might be too busy pulling on a girdle or reaching back to fasten a bra to have the gun in her hand. It was a suicidal impulse and I gave it up instantly. Other women might compulsively finish concealing themselves before snatching up the gun. Not her. "All right," she said at last. I faced her. She was wearing coveralls that, if anything, emphasized the curves of her figure. She had a sort of babushka that covered her red hair and kept it in place?ªthe kind of thing women workers used to wear in factories during the war. She had looked lethal with nothing on but a gun and a hard expression.