The Man Who Prepared Himself for Death
I’ve always lived a thousand miles from the ocean, so it’s rather a novelty for me for me to be able to stand on the beach with the surf lapping at my feet and look at out the endless horizon where water meets sky. At night when I get into bed, I can hear the waves, which for me is the sweetest kind of blankness to drop off to.
I have a beautiful room—more of a suite, really—on the eighth floor. Except for bellboys, waiters, and the maid who picks up my room in the morning, I haven’t spoken a word to anybody since I’ve been here. I’ve almost forgotten what my own voice sounds like, which is altogether fine with me.
I gave my son, my only living relative, what I thought he deserved. When I gave him the keys to my house and car, I told him I was going away and never coming back. He asked me jokingly if I was going on an expedition to another planet and I told him that, yes, in a way I was. He could sell or keep all my possessions—it made no difference to me. When he could see I wasn’t joking, I thought I saw a flicker of concern pass over his face; it lasted only a second and then was gone. We shook hands whenever we parted as if we were business partners instead of father and son.
On Friday evening I get dressed and go down for dinner. The restaurant is an enormous room—I’m told it used to be a ballroom—with a thirty-foot-high ceiling. The outside wall, including part of the ceiling, is all glass, giving the illusion that one is both indoors and outdoors at the same time. The only difference is that the tropical plants outside are growing in the ground and inside they are in huge planters. Off to the side is a pianist on a little raised platform. One has to twist one’s head all the way around to get a glimpse of him. He plays softly and tirelessly from the French repertoire: Ravel, Satie, and Debussy.
Everybody in the restaurant is seated alone. I suppose it would be possible for two or more people to sit together at one table, but nobody ever does. Something else that you might find peculiar is that everybody is facing the same direction, toward the glass wall. And, since everybody is a party of one, there is no conversation except with the waiters who move efficiently among the tables in what seems a sort of dance.
The dinner with its various courses takes upwards of two hours. In all that time I can’t help but notice the people in my line of sight, although all I can see are backs of heads and the occasional profile. They are mostly very ordinary people, like me; people you would see on any street in America. There are the well-heeled bottle blondes and the middle-aged men who don’t wear their clothes very well because of their lumpy bodies.
A few of the people stand out, for one reason or another: The large woman dressed all in black with a veil over her face. I wonder how she is going to eat with her face covered, but then her food arrives and she raises the veil like a curtain. (When she show is over, the curtain comes down again.) The distinguished-looking gentleman with the eye patch and the terrible limp who obviously has an artificial leg under his trousers. The platinum blonde in the glittery gown who, you realize on the second or third look, is really a man. The “movie star” with his perfect black hair (a wig?) and finely chiseled features. (No autographs, please!) Even with my limited knowledge of movie actors, I recognize him from movies he was in ten or fifteen years ago. I believe he’s what is known as a “has-been.”
The one person who stands out the most (for me, anyway) is the midget. Unlike other midgets I’ve seen, he’s perfectly proportioned; his head is a perfect oval shape and is not too big for his body. With his pencil-line moustache and his evening attire with top hat, cane and gloves, he resembles a doll or a ventriloquist’s dummy. You almost want to take him on your lap and see what happens. After he has been seated, he removes the top hat and places it upside-down on the corner of the table with the gloves inside and the cane beside the hat.
All the people in the room, like me, have been schooled in the art of closing themselves off from others. While sitting alone in a room with a hundred or so other people, you are able to radiate the illusion in your every movement that you are the only person present.
One by one, over the course of the next several days, those people who stand out for me cease to exist, along with others who merely seemed like ciphers. Every evening at dinner in the restaurant I notice new people who were never there before and an absence of those who were there when I first came. First the fat lady in black takes her leave; then the glamorous platinum blonde who is a man. Then, conspicuous in his absence is the gentleman with the limp, followed by the fading movie star. They all got what they came for.
For several days thereafter I continue to see the midget every evening when I’m eating my swordfish or filet mignon. Even though we’ve never met or spoken a word to each other, I feel some kind of a connection with him, a familiarity. I know, without knowing, that he has a fascinating story to tell; I’m sure I would like him and he me. Then, one evening when I take my place at my tiny table and look across the room to find him with my eyes, he, too, is gone. I think maybe he is just late in coming, but then he doesn’t come at all.
After dinner that evening I am unnerved and maybe even a little despondent. And I had been doing so well since I came here. At one a.m., I still haven’t been able to go to sleep, so I call the night attendant. I think he can give me a pill or speak a few words of encouragement.
“What’s the problem?” he asks as he comes into my room and sits down in the chair by the bed, puts his elbows on his knees and clasps his hands together. He wears a form-fitting blue shirt that shows his muscular frame. His name is Paul.
“I’m a little unsettled,” I say.
“Stomach bothering you? I can give you a bromide.”
“No, it’s not that. My stomach is fine.”
“Would you like a massage? It’ll help you to relax.”
“No, I don’t like being touched.”
He looks at me as if he’s trying to figure me out. He could break me in half if he wanted to.
“Do you want me to sing to you?” he asks.
“Does anybody change their minds after they get here? Decide they don’t want to go through with it?”
“You know that’s not possible,” he says. “That’s why they subject you to all that counseling and screening so you know before you get here that there’s no turning back.”
“Do you know how they do it?”
“No, I don’t, and you don’t want to know either. You’re not supposed to worry about that at all. You’re not supposed to even think about it or talk about it.”
“I wasn’t worried about it until this evening after dinner.”
“Did something happen at dinner?” he asks.
“No, it’s just that a friend of mine who had always been there wasn’t there anymore.”
“You didn’t come here to make friends,” he says with a sad smile.
“I know. I just can’t seem to help myself.”
“I can give you a pill if you like.”
“Is it the pill? The pill to end all pills?”
He laughs. “No, it’s not that,” he says. “That’s not my department. It’s just a simple little sleeping pill.”
He takes a little bottle out of his pocket and shakes a pill into my palm. He goes into the bathroom and gets a glass of water and when he comes back I take the pill like a trouper.
“I’ve been here now for two weeks,” I say. “I’m a little concerned about how much longer I’m going to have to wait.”
“The wait is making you nervous?”
“Everybody is different,” he says. “When the decision is made that you’re ready, your wait will be over.”
“I’m ready now. I was ready on the day I arrived.”
He surprises me by patting my hand. “You have absolutely nothing to worry about. Maybe you’re just feeling a little lonely. Do you want me to sit with you for a while until you go to sleep?”
“If you have nothing better to do.”
He makes himself comfortable in the chair and in a minute or two he’s snoring. I must have fallen asleep right after that because that’s the last thing I remember.
When I wake up I look at the clock and am surprised to see it’s nearly noon. Paul is gone, of course, and I haven’t heard him leave. I have lost ten hours or more in sleep that seemed like ten minutes. I don’t know what was in the pill he gave me, but it was very effective. Oblivion in a bottle.
I force myself to get out of bed and take a few steps. I feel groggy and my legs feel like lead. When I open the curtains, I see the sky is gray instead of the customary brilliant blue; it’s raining out and foggy.
Unlike most people, I like the rain and the fog, so I get dressed and go down in the elevator and outside. I’ll walk for a while and then maybe I’ll feel like eating a light lunch.
The surf is choppy and I don’t see the usual small boats. It promises to be an interesting day, I think. We’ll see what all this weather brings. I feel a tiny bit of exhilaration, something I haven’t felt for a long time. Something is in the air; I’m not sure what.
I walk a half-mile or so down the beach from the hotel. I don’t see anybody, not even any gulls. I plan on going down just a little farther and then turning around and going back. I like the spirit of adventure, being out in wind, rain and fog that nobody else will brave. Take me for the fool I am.
As I continue walking, I hear a rushing sound, like a rush of air. I think it’s the wind picking up but when I turn and look out at the ocean I see a huge wave that seems to be coming right toward me. The wave is so big I know I can’t outrun it. I stand rooted to the spot and close my eyes and wait for the wave to crush me. My last thought is: So this is how they do it!
I don’t know how much time goes by. Time has lost its relevance. I’m lying in shallow water. I open my eyes and see people standing on a small pier looking down at me. Somebody jumps into the water and raises me up. I see right away it’s Paul, the night attendant who gave me the pill. He lifts me out and places me on my back on the pier. I choke and gasp for air. When I have revived a little bit I look up at the people standing over me. It’s the fat lady in black, the faded movie star, the gentleman with the eye patch, and the glamorous platinum blonde who is really a man. Someone is straddling my chest to force the water out of my lungs. I think at first it’s Paul but then I realize it’s the midget with the pencil-line moustache.