Land of Opportunity

by Neil Crabtree


Lahuskey opened the door to the doctor’s office, stepping back to let an old woman exit, the legs of her walker bumping the door, and then his shoes, in slow motion as she inched out into the hall. The woman chattered to him the whole time, thanking him, he supposed, his understanding of the Spanish language limited to the few words he heard on television or in restaurants.

He made sure she was clear before letting the big door swing closed. How long before he was like that? he wondered. Ten years?

At the frosted window he saw movement on the other side, one or another of the pudgy receptionists or nurses or whatever the heck they were on the telephone asking several callers to please hold, one after another.

He signed his name on the list and rapped the glass with his knuckle. The glass slid open and Rosa scowled but made a point of signaling him okay, okay, not wanting to antagonize him after the scene he’d made last time.

He sat down next to a sleeping young man and read a pamphlet on the benefits of eating vegetables. There was never one on the benefits of a big juicy steak.

Soon a nurse appeared in the doorway and signaled him to come.

“Did you bring the Psych Eval, Mr. Lahuskey?” the nurse asked in a quiet little voice.

He tapped the pocket of his coat. “Got that. Brought the cardiologist’s papers too. I want to get this done today, if we can.”

“We’ll do what we can. Go ahead into Room Two and get undressed. The doctor will be right with you.” She was a head or so shorter than Lahuskey, a heavy-set little Cuban lady with shiny white teeth and perfect English. Dolores, he thought. Or Doris. Her name was something like that. She wore no name tag. He wasn’t sure why he cared.

He undressed and put on the open-backed gown. In the last week he’d had a complete cardio-vascular checkup, including stress test, and three weeks before that, when he first applied for Early Termination, he had been interviewed and tested at the psychiatrist’s office for two days straight.

It was the damnedest thing. He had applied to terminate his life in exchange for a cash settlement for his family, following the guidelines of the latest government policy, and he had to show he was not suicidal to be accepted. Since the collapse of Social Security, a whole new bureaucracy had taken its place.

Dr. Calderon came in, a stack of papers in his hands, his smile so bright and sincere that Lahuskey knew it was some trick he had learned at med school for disarming the patient. The young psychiatrist had done the same thing. Calderon was forty and balding, his hair so thin his white scalp showed through, like he had been interrupted while pasting it to the top of his head.

They exchanged greetings. Lahuskey sat at the edge of the examination table and waited for the doctor to sit at his desk and arrange the papers and gather his notes and then open the folder of papers placed there for him. He read for several minutes, turning to the last page of each report after a cursory look through the many pages of statistics. He made a note at the end of each, and signed his name with the gold pen he carried.

“Well, Mr. Lahuskey, it appears you are a prime candidate for Early Termination.”

“I suppose that’s up to you, Doctor.”

The two men stared at each other for a minute, like the way people share conversation without talking at gravesites and funeral parlors. The weight of his decision was right there in the room with them, the end a couple of signatures away.

“Are you taking the extended full payment or the quick payout?”

“I’ve elected the quick payout. Same as I’d do if I won the Lotto. At our ages, my wife and I don’t enter into any long-term arrangements.”

“You’ve discussed this all with her thoroughly, I’m sure.”

“Yes, Doctor. She’d do it herself if her health was better. We both agreed to get the highest payout, I’m the one to do this. I want her and the kids to enjoy their lives. I’d have done it ten years ago if they’d had this policy. I just thank God this country’s being run by people who take the quality of living seriously.”

It was a lot of talking for Lahuskey but he had to talk to somebody about this. You don’t open your heart to just anybody about choosing to end your life early. He’d thought about it all and made up his mind, and now he wanted to get it over with. People die every day, and for nothing, most of the time.

Doctor Calderon smiled, and leaned closer. “You’re a brave man, Mr. Lahuskey. Some day more people will see things the way you do. Tell you what. Let’s do the physical and get that out of the way. You pass the physical like you did the cardio and the psych, and I’ll put you in for Accelerated Recovery.”

“Ah, Doctor. That’s great. I never even thought of that.”

“Come on. Let’s see if I can qualify you.”

Lahuskey was excited and stayed that way throughout the physical. The Accelerated Recovery would automatically give him another twenty per cent, half of which he’d realize in the quick payout. It put you in a pool of organ donors for heart, liver and kidney transplants where, if there was an urgent request in the queue, you were paid an additional bonus in a separate check. Tax free, too. His son and wife could sure put that to good use.

Dr. Calderon seemed not so bad after all. He talked like a man who understood politics, and had his heart in the right place. Lahuskey did not even mind the greased finger up his behind, heck, the Army had taught him all he ever wanted to know about strangers intruding on his privacy. It was part of the routine. You start out with other people wiping your ass and you end up the same way, in a hospital or rest home, wearing diapers all over again, like in your whole life you did not learn one damn thing about hygiene. Unless you got Early Termination, went out with a little dignity.

It was a better deal than his brother got, paralyzed down one whole side by a stroke he never saw coming, worse even than what happened to Pa. The brain cancer at least kept him from ever knowing how bad things were.

Lahuskey had no problem applying for Early Termination first chance he got. He was sure once the newness wore off, people all over the country would be sending in their applications, shrinking the payout amounts by their numbers. Now was the time to get in on it, while everyone still had that wait and see attitude. While they were waiting and seeing, he’d be collecting a nice big check for his family. And a bonus for Accelerated Recovery.

The doctor finished, patted him on the back, and told him to get dressed. Lahuskey sat down in the chair and tied his shoes, a little nervous about getting into the extra program. He was sixty-six years old after all. He’d never been real sick, never broken a bone, never been shot or been in any bad accidents. Smoking and drinking had no appeal to him. He didn’t visit whores or abuse drugs or even have trouble sleeping at night.

Oh, he would love to stay and be there for his wife, when the illness came that would finally claim her. And he dearly loved his son and daughter-in-law. But it was the grandkids that gave him pause; little Nicki was only four and Joey was half that. The thought of all he was giving up of their sweet lives was nearly too much for him, and he had to force himself not to think about it.

He’d had a whole life to get rich and he had not been able to do it, hard as he tried. Every day on the television was some new millionaire celebrity but he’d never had that talent. He was a pipefitter, a pretty good one, but there was no more glamour in that than in sewage treatment, and about the same lousy money. So here was his chance to make things right, and provide some real security for his loved ones.

The nurse came to take him to the doctor’s office, where she left the two men alone. Doctor Calderon sat behind his desk, typing on the keyboard, looking up to smile. On his desktop were two monitors, flat panel displays connected to the same computer, and on the screen of the first was a document he was typing into, and on the second was a list in different colors that constantly moved up and down on the screen.

“Good news, Mr. Lahuskey. You’ve been accepted for Early Termination, and Accelerated Recovery just sent in a binder. You’re approved for both.”

Lahuskey clapped his hands together like he’d won a prize. “I was worried there for a minute,” he said.

“You’re good as gold. See this flashing arrow. There are three different hospitals with priority demands right now. All three have sent binders. My advice, go with Mercy here locally as your primary. That way you get full price from the other two as well, even after the fact, as we say. When you add in the matching government funds, your Accelerated Recovery bonus would come to,” he ran a finger down a column so Lahuskey could see, “eighty-four thousand dollars.”

Lahuskey looked at the screen and at the doctor and laughed. “You know how long it would take me to put that kind of money together at my age? Hah! This is terrific.”

“I’ll need you to pick up that electronic pen and sign these three documents where the cursor is flashing,” the doctor said. He pulled one of the monitors off its stand and laid it flat like a tablet on his desk top.

“That is something,” Lahuskey told him. He felt giddy, like a kid who’d won a prize. He signed the screens, watching his scrawl appear like magic ink on the document lines, and the flashing stopped when he lifted his hand. “Wait until I tell Edna,” he said.

The smile left the doctor’s face. “Mr. Lahuskey, there is something I’m afraid you don’t understand.”

Lahuskey straightened up, waited to find out what he’d done wrong. “So tell me.”

“Accelerated Recovery means there is an immediate need for your organs. You go straight to Mercy Hospital from here.” Even though the doctor said it softly, patiently, his words were as unclear as static.

“What? What do you mean? My son is home, my grandkids...”

“I’m sorry. It’s the regulations. I thought you had read the manual about all this. If you want to withdraw, ...”

Lahuskey could see that was not really an option. He looked away from the younger man’s soft face, looked at the computer screens, the letters and numbers like hieroglyphics. The room seemed to shrink around them.

“No. Just give me a minute,” he said.

“I understand, sir.”

“I know you had to pull some strings to get me approved,” Lahuskey began. He needed to explain something but suddenly he could not remember what it was.

The doctor saw his falling spirits. “Why don’t you go down into the park and relax for a minute? There is a lot of paperwork to be processed. I won’t call for transport until you give the okay. Here. Take my cell phone, if you like.”

“I got a phone,” Lahuskey said. He patted his pocket. Then he turned and headed out without another word.

Downstairs he sat down on the bench beneath the tree and put his face in his hands. Then it all got to him. He thought of his wife, not seeing her again, not holding those kids, not explaining to his son. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, that’s not what he meant to do, and he began to cry.

Tears in an unstoppable flow ran down his cheeks on to his fingers. He heard a miserable, animal noise, full of pain, and did not realize it came from within him. His body shook with the sobs. Time stopped. Then a hand was on his shoulder, shaking him.

A bag lady stood there, in ragged clothes, an old coat with the seam ripped down one side, fingerless gloves over filthy hands, her face a mottle of purple and pink, and black, greasy hair poking out of scarf so faded there was no telling its original color. Her feet wore rubber rain boots. He smelled her when he wiped the snot from his nose. In his watery vision the woman looked like his wife, the same high cheekbones and deep-set dark eyes, or some long-lost forgotten relative of hers, and it upset him, made him angry.

“Mister, you okay?” she asked, her voice tinny, unused.

“What?”

“I say, are you okay? You look like a man just got some real bad news.”

Lahuskey sat up. He was suddenly aware of where he was, as he sniffed and cleaned himself up. He was on the bench under the tree outside Dr. Calderon’s office, it was maybe four in the afternoon, and he’d just been accepted into the Early Termination program. “I’m fine,” he said. He laughed at the thought. “My doctor says I’m in perfect health.”

“You sure was bawlin’ there,” the bag lady said. Her cart was beside her, filled with debris and garbage and aluminum cans.

Lahuskey stood up suddenly, scaring her, and she backed away from him.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, lady. Understand?” He took out his wallet, took out all the cash, held it out to her. She backed away further.

“Take this money, okay? You buy some food. Buy some clothes. Understand? Do something to help yourself.” He reached toward her, but she withdrew.

When he saw she would not take the money from his hand, he set it down in a pile on the bench. “Here it is. Take it all. Or share it with someone, I don’t care.”

Then he turned and left the park, went out to the side street to use his cell phone, away from the nosey old woman. Across the street was the Post Office. He wished he’d written a letter but he had not been able to do it. Every sentence looked so foreign as he wrote he could not feel his own sentiment in the words. He’d given up after a couple of tries and figured he’d just say his piece when the time came.

He called his home number. The phone rang but there was no answer, then finally the answering machine came on, and Edna’s voice, sounding like she was reading a script, told him Mike and Edna were not at home, so please leave his name and phone number, and he hung up, disconnected himself from that machine, damn sure whatever he said would sound ridiculous by tomorrow.

He was embarrassed still for being caught crying like a child. He didn’t mean to scare her but a man should have a moment to himself without strangers putting hands on him. Hell, next thing you knew he’d be wimping out on the whole deal. Start feeling sorry for himself, and throw it all away. Go home broke again.

Not today. He put his phone away. There was a sound from the Post Office yard, familiar yet sounding strange. The flagpole rang like a bell when the wind blew and the iron stays banged against the pole. He looked at the red, white and blue banner waving proudly in the breeze. He thanked God for letting him be born in a land of such opportunity, where a man could make a meaningful contribution, even at the end of his life.


Copyright © 2007 by Neil Crabtree

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