Mr. Washburn’s Last Resort
by Jack Bragen
part 1 of 2
I rode in back, while my daughter and her husband occupied the front seats of the ground car. The radiation from the pale harsh sun was buffered by smoky-colored polarized glass. And the ride was relatively smooth and unchanging as the vehicle surged along desert roads.
With no good reason for it, I periodically tasted the end of my cigar, which they would not let me smoke in their car. I believed smoking was not an issue, now that I had five months to live at the most. The lumpiness in my abdomen and periodic attacks of extreme pain in my torso were evidence to that. My liver cancer had metastasized, and I was being taken to the second most expensive hospice in the U.S.
It was set up to be a cross between a hospice and a resort, and was guaranteed, barring prohibitive medical issues, to provide at least one therapeutic climax at the hands — or other body parts — of the surrogates. Old Al Fisher, whom I had been friends with at the old folks home until he passed away, had called it “The Come Resort.” And really it was.
“Let me know if you need anything to drink,” insisted my son-in-law as the autopilot drove us across desolate roads. In times past, this desert had been home to creosote, cacti, tumbleweed, assorted lizards, and roadrunners. Now it was as barren as the dry sand that occasionally blew across the road, and that would have made driving a hazard had not the design of the ground cars been changed. Pollution had finally made the atmosphere outdoors unbreathable, and the ground car carried its own supply of oxygen for passengers.
My ears popped as the ground car made its way into the mountains. My daughter looked back at me and smiled. That smile appeared to be grief; she was preparing for my passing. It made me feel as though I were looking back at her from the dead. Of course, there was nothing I could say. My daughter had the best of intentions and had paid for my care for the last three years after my own money ran out. She had paid the extravagant cost of the resort where I was headed. She intended that my last moments of life be as joyous and as comfortable as possible.
A giant dead lake loomed ahead and, on it, a huge building with a thousand glass windows. It had a section that stretched over part of the water and was on concrete supports. Above this was a double balcony with wood veneer to try to make you think you were on a fishing pier. I had heard people no longer went out onto that balcony since the atmosphere had died. There was now no point in the resort being on a lake.
“A diet cola would be good,” I finally stated.
“We’re within ten minutes of the destination,” replied Ron.
“And so?” I said, copping that attitude by reflex that I was tougher than my son-in-law. It no longer applied, I realized.
The forty-year old, younger man produced a soda out of a small refrigerator in the front seat and handed it to me. “Here.” Ron’s barbed voice apparently indicated he wanted an apology.
I drank and tried to get the nerve up to offer some form of explanation. “I guess the tables are turned,” I accidentally commented.
“There’s no need for you to be that way,” Ron said angrily.
“Sorry,” I said. I started to weep.
“We’re almost at your drop-off point,” Ron said. “Don’t fall apart.”
I wanted to tell my son-in-law to lay off, but my recent plunge into timidity stopped me. I held my tongue and felt the humiliation. None too soon, the ground-car pulled up to the driveway of the giant hospice.
A woman in a revealing version of an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform soon appeared at the curb. She was accompanied by an old-model, robotized wheelchair, which was empty. She looked at me through the glass of the ground-car and gave me a smile.
Instantly, I felt as I had sixty years earlier, when I was an innocent teenager and had the hots for an older woman. It was a mixture of terror, vulnerability, and anticipation. It was pleasantly and intensely awkward. The back passenger door to the ground car opened, and I wondered if I was blushing.
Before I knew it, my daughter and her husband had said their goodbyes and had left. I was surprised at the warmth of the hug I got from my son-in-law, and also by the brevity of my daughter’s goodbye. Did she realize she might never see me again?
The wheelchair, with me in it, reached the front entrance of the mammoth building. The door closed behind us with a brief whistle of air, and the nurse removed my breathing mask, which was not a necessity indoors.
“Do you want to get some rest for a while and have something to drink before I show you our place?” I noted the curve of the nurse’s hips accentuated by the white, retro-style uniform, as she adjusted the mini blinds of the little room she had put me in.
She turned her head, and noticed I was looking at her. “I won’t be your helper. I’m the intake nurse.” I hoped their choice for my “helper” would be as appealing as this woman.
“I can stand, you know,” I said, preparing to lumber upward. Walking was difficult, but I wasn’t ready yet to be a total invalid. Not in the presence of a nice-looking lady to whom I was already growing attached.
The nurse turned, revealing again her cleavage, the sight of which, due to the past ten years of sexual deprivation, was a frustrating annoyance.
“We don’t make judgments here, Mr. Washburn. As far as I can see, you are a man.” She paused. “There is no need for you to prove it.” The nurse approached me, she wiped my face and neck with a warm, wet cloth, and she changed the bag of urine at my ankle, then lowered my trousers and checked the catheter. “Are you comfortable there?” she asked.
“Not as comfortable as I’d like to be,” I said. “But it’ll do for now.”
“I’m not the one who will be helping you,” she said, in an even tone. There was no judgment attached to that statement. “No spacing out,” said the nurse as she noticed my reverie. “Coffee with caffeine is provided here. We even have alcohol if you’re non-reactive to it.”
“Coffee would be great right now. My daughter never lets me have any,” I said.
We had been talking with my trousers open. Now the nurse raised them back up. I realized I was trying to be the nonchalant, seasoned male. My mind was thirty years delayed, I thought. Closer to the truth, the nurse probably believed I was too old for the exposure to mean anything.
“How do you take it?” the nurse’s voice now came from an adjoining room. The room I sat in was apparently where they did the intakes. A desk with a computer and papers was near me, and there was a file cabinet with worn, white paint that bespoke years of use. The room was dimly lit for now, but I realized it could be brightly illuminated by big overhead fluorescent lamps.
I looked behind me, and as I expected, saw there was a crash cart in the room. Not all clients signed the Do Not Resuscitate order as I had, yet you had to be terminal to stay here.
“Black with no sweetener,” I replied. “Put a dash of cold water in it to cool it, though.” I suddenly felt bold, and I reached into my shirt pocket for the cigar I had been playing with on the road trip. “Got a light?” I asked.
The nurse poked her head out the doorway and shook her head at me. “We have an oxygen tank in here. I’m sure you don’t want to blow us both to chunks. Wait, and a little later I will show you the room where smoking is allowable.”
I was elated. I was finally in a place that didn’t force me to follow a bunch of preachy rules. The main concern here was to die happily.
She was making me coffee the old fashioned way; without the help of the robots and the robotic arms that were everywhere. Very Zen, I thought.
The intake nurse put a folding table in front of me, and on it put a cup of black coffee. I sniffed at it and took a breath. I took a sip and discovered that she had gotten the temperature of the coffee just right.
A tense muscle in my back relaxed. I hadn’t realized the tension existed until the muscle released. The intake nurse looked at me. Without a word, she stood behind me and kneaded the muscles in my shoulders and neck. My head drooped of its own accord. I felt a floating sensation and realized I was just ‘letting it all go’.
She sat across from me and began to ask questions in her role as the intake nurse. My mouth answered her without intervention from me, and I was at peace in an undisturbed void.
The nurse received a text message. Her expression was impassive as she read and responded to it. “The surrogate who would have helped you is out with a cold. I’ve been offered the opportunity to fill in for her, and it is something I haven’t done in the past five years.”
I felt a surge of excitement above the knees and in my chest. It rivaled for attention with the ever-present liver pain, which, even without resurgence, was significant. My face felt hot, and I glanced in the mirror. “And you said yes to them?” I asked.
She nodded, “Yes, I’m your helper for the remainder of your journey. I’m Clara.”
“I’m Robert,” I replied. “What else needs to be done before the intake is over?”
“I’ll take you on a tour of the facility, give you a physical exam, and explain how we do things around here. We have a set of rules, you know.”
I looked at her and marveled at her sense of authority. I was old enough to be her grandfather, and yet it was she who was in charge. I was surprised that her position of power over me added to my embarrassment.
Clara stood up. “Are you familiar with this model of wheelchair?”
“I’ll walk,” I said. “I’m not finished just yet.”
“Do you want some help getting out of that?” She gestured at the robotic arms that dangled from the ceiling.
“I’ve got it I think.” I paused. And then, with a heave-ho, I struggled into a standing position. I hadn’t had a flare-up of pain in a long time. I wondered when next I would be writhing on the floor in agony. It was embarrassing.
Clara walked while keeping an eye on me, and I followed. We were in quite a large walkway with a series of doors painted off-white. The carpeting was that indoor-outdoor type, and had seen a lot of use. Clara came to a stop at one of the first doors. “This is the movie room.”
I feigned interest in the movie room, and I stole glances at Clara, while I believed she wasn’t looking. Clara was voluptuous and red-haired, apparently in her thirties, and had unpainted, sensuous lips. She carried an air of authority. I regretted not having someone like this when I was much younger.
Clara continued to show me the parts of the hospice, which I ignored while looking at her. We met several other hospice-goers while on the tour; most of them were older than I, and many in wheelchairs. The population was overwhelmingly male, yet there were a few old women who had elected to come here; the ones I saw had male helpers who were slender, well-groomed and muscular.
Clara paused and seemed hesitant about showing me the contents of a room. The door was black with red trim, was dirtied with numerous handprints, and had large, faded brass handles that had seen a lot of hands.
Clara adjusted her old style nurse’s hat and her bun of hair, and cleared her throat. She glanced at the timepiece on her wrist and said: “It’s time I took your vitals, Mr. Washburn.”
“What’s through that door?” I insisted. “I’m fine.”
Clara was perturbed. “Our insurance mandates that every client’s vitals be taken before going through this particular door.”
“I guess I can’t argue with insurance companies,” I said, taking a seat next to the device that looked like an old-style automatic blood pressure monitor. “I’m all yours.” I noted that many of the fixtures in the building and some of the equipment resembled those of fifty to a hundred years earlier. And yet everything seemed to be in working order and was getting used as if it were modern equipment.
The nurse rolled up my sleeve. She put on the old-style blood pressure cuff, and it obediently inflated, putting pressure around my arm. The nurse stuck some small plastic object in my ear for a moment, and then looked at it and entered a notation onto an old pocket PC.
“Pretty far off,” said Clara. The blood pressure device had finished and had yielded bad numbers.
Meanwhile, the intermittent pain that tended to attack my gut and my side reasserted itself. I doubled over in the chair, and Clara instinctively put a hand on my shoulder. I sat for a good ten minutes with my head spinning from the pain and Clara holding onto me. She had been briefed about my pain attacks and knew in advance that there was no need to summon additional staff. With Clara holding me, the pain was intimate, and was almost good. Ordinarily, the pain was unbearable and not good at all.
Finally, the pain subsided into a nagging, less intense background sensation. I summoned most of my remaining strength and stood from the chair. “I would like to know what’s through that door, now,” I said.
Clara nodded. She slid a card through a security unit on the wall, the door opened, and we went through. Instantly, we were in a totally different environment. “We call it ‘The Rain Room’,” she said.
The room was cavernously huge, with a very high ceiling; it was dimly lit, and for the most part, was painted black. There were several tables with chairs with clear vinyl umbrellas that had LED lights on them. Droplets of water came down from what must have been pipes in the ceiling. The effect was that of a rainy night at an outdoor café. Water from the sky had become an extreme rarity with changes man had done to the Earth’s climate.
One wall of the room was devoted to an underwater view of the lake. This wall had curtains kept closed to obscure the disturbing view of a dead lake. Nothing lives in the lake; get used to it, I thought. And yet I believed this room was wonderful. I could imagine sitting in here for hours, enjoying the rain.
“There’s more,” said Clara. She took my hand and led me to an adjoining room that had a hot tub, sauna, and shower. Also in the room was a large, water-resistant mattress on a platform. And a fresh white sheet had been put on it. And then Clara led me to yet another room, which was dry and well lit, and which had a king-size bed with an electric blanket.
Clara led me through yet another door, and we were once again in the hallway of the hospice with its hospital-like environment. “If you want the rain room, you must sign up for it three days in advance. And it has to be OK’d by your helper.”
I wanted to sit in there. The last time I had felt rain on my cheeks had been three decades earlier. This room was a simulation of the rainy nights that stick in your memory.
“It’s time you got some rest,” she said. “I’ll show you to your room, now.” She summoned the same older wheelchair that apparently had been paired with me. It rolled up from the hallway to a spot in front of me while it was on self-pilot. I obligingly sat down again, and the restraint system of the wheelchair secured me in the seat. With Clara walking alongside me, the wheelchair rolled into room 99, and with its mechanical arms, gently deposited me onto the bed.
I sat up and said the word “water.” A mechanical arm came out of the wall, got water from the small refrigerator that was in my room, and handed the cup to me. “Please stay,” I said. “I’m dying for someone to talk to.” Translation; I’m dying and I’d love to get laid tonight.
“Tomorrow,” whispered Clara. She then gave me the faintest possible kiss on the side of my neck. And she was gone.
* * *
I awoke and realized I was drenched with sweat. My mouth and throat were so parched I almost gagged. The room was pitch dark, and I could feel warm air from a vent that hissed from somewhere above. “Lights,” I said, lisping from a dry tongue. The room became lit, and I saw that a bedrail had been put up to prevent me from falling. “Water,” I said. A mechanical arm dutifully produced a cup of cold water. I drank, relieved to get moisture back in my mouth.
I looked at the clock. It was three in the morning. I knew I would not be able to get back to sleep. I grabbed the bedrail, hoping to lower it, and was surprised how feeble I had become. I tried harder, and with pain in my shoulder, was able to release the bedrail.
I put my bare feet on the cold tile floor and stood, my knees trembling. I mused; this is what the end is like. “Wheelchair,” I said. The door to my suite swung open, seemingly of its own volition, and in rolled a robotized wheelchair, which then came to a halt right behind me, perfect for me to sit. I sat, heavily, and realized I had been breathing hard.
“Cafeteria,” I said. The wheelchair, with me in it, exited my room, with the door automatically opening and closing for me, and then it started at a rapid pace down the hallway. Soon I was at the door to the cafeteria, which opened for me.
Inside were tables and some chairs, and someone who was also in a wheelchair sat at one of the tables. And I realized it was an old woman. “Dying for company?” I said to her, as I approached the table adjacent to the one where she sat.
“That’s not funny. Anyway, can’t you see I’m reading?” She had a novel with her that she was keeping in a homemade book cover. Apparently she was halfway through it. Since when do people read? I thought Certainly nobody in my generation or after, and this woman wasn’t much older than I.
“Okay, I guess I’ll go elsewhere.” I was on the verge of giving another command to the wheelchair.
“No, you don’t have to leave. I’m ninety and dying, and I haven’t learned how to be friendly to a man.”
“That’s more like it,” I said.
“Don’t get your hopes up. My helper looks like a Chippendale.”
I glanced at the book the woman had, checking to see if it might be upside down or if the pages hadn’t been turned. This woman actually read.
“I’m Robert,” I said.
“Virginia,” she said. “I would shake hands with you but you don’t want to catch what I’ve got. I don’t want to catch yours, either.”
“Remember the old days when they were dispelling the myth that you could get syphilis from a toilet?”
“You must be quite a bit older than me,” replied Virginia.
We continued talking for another hour. My energy level surprised me. I should have been in pain by now. I felt giddy, as if I had had a half a pot of coffee.
“I like you,” Virginia said. Her face went blank. And then she dropped to the floor like a falling rock.
I knelt over her and took her pulse. She opened her eyes for a moment and looked at me without seeing me. “Thank you,” Virginia said. And she was gone.
I sat by Virginia and lost track of time. I don’t know why I didn’t call for staff.
I looked over my shoulder and realized Clara was in the room, and had been observing me for the past few minutes. When I saw her she signaled some robots to enter the room. As the three robots knelt over the body of the old woman I had just met, Clara checked my vital signs. When she was done, she handed me a pill and a cup of water, and said, “You ought to get some sleep. This is part of the routine here. I hope it doesn’t cause you much distress.”
I reached for Clara, attempting to put a hand on her shoulder. She pulled back and said, “Only when and if I’m ready. Right now I’m ranking staff member, disqualifying me from this. Maybe you’ll get me tomorrow if you’re lucky.”
“I’ve paid good money to be here,” I said. I felt an encroaching helplessness as well as sedation from the pill I had just taken.
“I’m not an inanimate object that you can rent to use as you wish. My rights enter into the equation. I have veto power. Got it?” Clara was quite hostile. I wondered how many horny dying men she had dealt with in her past work here.
“Got it,” I replied. “I won’t argue with that.” Of course she was a human being. I wasn’t dealing with a cut of meat that I could do with as I wished.
Satisfied by my apparent submissiveness, Clara said, “You ought to get some sleep.”
“I would rather not,” I replied. “I worry that I will never wake up.”
Meanwhile during this interchange, the robots that worked here were checking vital signs, confirming the old woman’s death and putting the body into a plastic enclosure. The three robots, all older models that used wheels to propel themselves, picked up the body container and made their way out of the cafeteria with it, and then turned left in the hallway, and were soon out of my sight.
“Coffee, black,” I said. Soon a robotic arm that ran on a track in the ceiling produced my drink and put it on the Formica table in front of me.
“Well, at least I need to sleep,” said Clara. “I hope to see you tomorrow after you wake up.” Suddenly, before I could react, Clara kissed me on the lips and then was out of the room before I could say thanks.
After Clara was gone for ten minutes, the loneliness hit me, and I told my wheelchair to take me to my room, where I recall I slept fitfully.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Jack Bragen