After an enormous weight loss, it was disgusting how much loose skin was left over. Walter Manning pulled his hospital gown back down over the flaccid mass of flesh that used to be his stomach, and then he pulled the blanket high up under his chin. He'd always been a big man, but that never bothered him. The luxury men's suits he was accustomed to wearing were almost perfectly designed to disguise the girth that came naturally with age and wealth. Still, the steep decline to his present condition revolted him.
“Are they ever going to feed us?” Walter complained.
“Wouldn’t make no difference if they did,” said Lester Holt, the man in the next bed. “Sons of bitches must be rationing the food now, too. I haven’t had a decent meal in weeks.”
“Decent meal,” Walter spat. He was in pain. He’d just returned from using the bathroom. He’d had a lot of trouble this time and needed more assistance than usual …a lot more. As he settled himself into his hospital gurney, he was struck by the certainty that he would never get out of it again under his own power. None of the men in this wardroom were expected to recover, but it wasn't just disease causing them to lose weight.
“Will you turn that crap off?” Walter snapped.
“Pound sand, fatty!” Lester Holt retorted. The man had a knack for finding and cutting at raw nerves. “A deal’s a deal. I had to suffer through your damn Propaganda Broadcasting Service for two hours. Now it's my turn to watch Newsmax.”
The guy was an idiot. He was a stereotype. “At least turn it down!” Walter lost his temper, “All those morons do is drone on and on about how your racist, xenophobic, homophobic president is going to save the world from the economic collapse." The fool was even wearing his bright red MAGA hat.
“Your guys caused it, fatty.” Lester seemed to thrive on conflict. “My guy is gonna fix it.”
Walter rolled his eyes. “The collapse started in China, you insufferable little man. It has nothing to do with the American political system. This Depression is global, and the solutions will not be found on your pathetic alt-right brainwashing news station.”
Walter watched Lester struggle to sit up, apparently so that he could more carefully observe the irritating effects of his caustic remarks. “That’s not the way I heard it.” Lester’s voice dripped with malice as he anticipated delivering the coup de grâce. He waved one hand toward the television, “The way I heard it, some damn bureaucrat changed the law to allow the California Public Employees Retirement System to use derivatives to invest in the Chinese real estate market. Damn derivatives for Chrissake! The same damn thing that got us into the first Great Depression!"
Walter shifted uncomfortably in his gurney and looked away. He wished he could roll on his side to avoid the burning intensity of Lester's maniacally gleaming eyes, "You don't know the first thing about the subject, you ignorant fool. I’m not going to bother wasting my breath answering you!”
“The way I heard it,” Lester continued relentlessly, “The CalPERS’ Chief Financial Officer filed false financial disclosures to cover the whole thing up.” Walter watched with growing horror as Lester swung his arm away from the television to point an accusing finger in his direction.
You can’t blame this all on me! Walter tried to rationalize away the coming accusations. That's ridiculous; the economy is global! No single person caused this Depression. But some part of his soul reminded him of all the lies, schemes, and dirty deals his mind had devised. It’s not MY fault!
Mercifully, Lester’s eyes widened, and instead of accusing Walter, he looked right past him. Walter turned his head to follow Lester’s gaze, and then he smiled happily for the first time in days.
It never ceased to amaze Walter the effect a pretty girl can have on a man. Even these two old, formerly fat, sick men could still take a moment to admire the truly glorious beauty of the twenty-something young lady who approached them now.
“Good morning,” her smile lit up the room, "My name is Melanie. I go by 'she' and 'her' pronouns. How should I refer to you?”
Lester howled with mirth. "Oh, my Gaawd!” He drew out the last word, ensuring Walter knew it was intended to bludgeon him. “Oh my gawd, Melanie! How did you know that Walter here used to be a woman? But he’s a man now. He got himself an addadictomy!” Lester roared with laughter again. “You get it? An addadictomy? Haw, haw!”
Sensing Walter's discomfort, Melanie scolded Lester. "That will be enough of that, Mr. Holt!" She didn't bother asking for his pronouns.
"Can't you see you're upsetting Mr. Manning?" Apparently, she had forgotten to let Walter identify his preferred pronouns too.
“I’m sorry.” Lester relented, settling down a bit. “I know I’m a jackass. But at least I’m an honest jackass.”
“I’m so sorry…” Melanie turned her attention back to Walter, eyes raised with querulous expectation.
“Just call me Walter. He, him.” He said, trying to ignore Lester and answer her previous question.
“I’m so sorry, Walter.” Her glowing smile returned, and it seemed to contain an additional glint of satisfaction at learning his preferred name. “If the noise is bothering you,” she cast a furtive glance to where Lester sat, watching the shared television, “I can get you a set of AR glasses. In addition to full internet access, they also have a noise cancellation feature…”
Her words trailed off as she waited for Walter to reply. For his part, Walter’s gaze drifted to the other side of the four-bed wardroom where the third member of their party lay, quietly viewing the world through the augmented reality (AR) glasses that had been provided to him. Walter didn’t even know the man’s name. He never spoke. He just sat there like a zombie, day after day, watching some electronic facsimile of life passing before his eyes as his own life passed away.
“I think I’ll pass on the glasses. Thank you, dear." Now why had he said that? Why had he called her 'dear'? Perhaps it was because, at this moment, this vibrant young woman really was the dearest thing to him in his wretched, dreary place.
She didn’t seem to mind. “All right, Walter. But if you change your mind, just let me know. You know where the call button is?”
Walter knew where it was.
Days went by, and hospice came several times to visit the unnamed man in the AR glasses. Then one morning, he was gone. There used to be four men in the wardroom, but now it was down to just Walter and Lester. Their endless arguments continued unabated.
“Lester, I don’t normally use the word ‘stupid’ when referring to someone. But you are a truly stupid person.” Lester always seemed to goad Walter the most when Melanie came around to deliver the scanty meals and check their blood pressure. It was as if Lester was trying to make him so mad that he would have a heart attack and die right in front of the pretty caregiver. “That’s what I did for a living! I couldn’t possibly explain to you the intricacies of currency exchange rates, the effects of quantitative easing on bond markets, and derivatives trading. You are just going to have to accept that I know more about this than you do, and try to listen (for once) to what I am trying to tell you!”
“Oh, the big-shot banker speaks,” Lester sneered derisively. “How’s that working out for you, big-shot? Looks to me like your right down here in the poor-house with the rest of us ignoramuses.”
Lester was poised for attack. But once again, Walter got a reprieve from his scathing commentary when Melanie arrived to pull the curtain closed around Lester’s gurney. Hospice was coming to visit his nemesis.
When the hospice visit was over, Walter saw Melanie walking away with tears in her eyes.
“What did you say to her?” Walter generally tried his best to never resort to unwarranted ad hominem attacks, but his scathing tone clearly communicated the unspoken sentiment, "You bastard."
"Relax, fatty." Apparently, Lester felt no restraint was necessary when it came to ad hominem attacks. "I was just telling her about hell."
“I said,” Lester slowed down his words as if explaining to a child, “I was telling little Miss Sunshine about hell. It’s like everyone on earth is riding on a conveyor belt straight into the fire. Billions and billions of people on a one-way trip to burn for eternity.”
Walter could only stammer in outrage, “Why would you even say something like that?”
"It's something these kids need to know about," Lester replied matter-of-factly.
“What is wrong with you?!”
“What’s wrong with me?” Now Lester’s eyes flashed. “What’s wrong with you, buddy? You know we all got to pay for the things we done.”
“How dare you try to turn this around on me! Why don’t you just die quietly without pushing that superstitious nonsense on that poor innocent girl?”
“What are you gonna do, fatty? Are you gonna kick my ass? You can’t even wipe your own.”
Walter’s face began to turn purple, and he forced himself to breathe deeply, letting the thunderstorm of emotions pass through him. “You are unbearable. Unbelievable. I’ve got to move to another ward.”
Walter watched as Lester inched up on his elbows. It was as if he were trying to seize the high ground so that he could deliver the decisive blow. “I just told her you can either repent, or you can slide on down into the pit forever. Either way, there’s going to be a reckoning.”
"The only one who needs to repent here is you! You twisted, little, evil worm!"
Lester relaxed and lay back down on his gurney, smiling. "Don't you understand that all this," Lester waved his arms expansively around the room and then directed them both forward, dramatically framing the television set. “All this don’t mean nothing.”
Walter deflated. Lester just had his hospice visit. A respectful silence passed briefly between the two men. It was probably the first time that it had ever happened.
“How about you, Walter? Are you afraid to die?”
Walter considered that this might be the first time Lester had ever addressed him by his actual name.
“No.” Walter lied.
Lester cocked one eyebrow and gave Walter a penetrating sideways glance. "Like I said before, fatty," Lester had returned to using his former moniker for Walter, "Everybody's got to face the reckoning. In your case, I think it's going to be a train-wreckoning! Haw, haw! You get it? A train-wreckoning!”
Lester died in the night. Apparently a victim of his morbid sense of humor, thought Walter coldly. Good riddance.
As the days turned slowly into weeks, and Walter began to realize, to his horror, that he missed Lester. As obnoxious as the rotten little man had been, without an opponent to strive against, all Walter was left alone to battle only the endless thoughts that churned and circulated through his idle mind. He'd lied when he told Lester that he wasn't afraid to die. He was afraid, very much so. There was no hell, he was sure. And therefore no heaven either, he supposed. Besides, if Lester was in heaven, that was the last place Walter wanted to go for eternity.
His solitude was nearly absolute, interrupted only occasionally by the visits from Melanie. She brought plastic trays containing what barely passed for food and measured his vital signs. Walter longed for those brief visits like a starving man longs for food or a drowning man longs for a gasp of air. But her visits had become far too short. Before rushing off, Melanie explained that the hospital staff had not been paid, so she had to pick up the slack for her absent co-workers. Walter was a man who required intellectual stimulation. Again and again, he considered, and then discarded, the idea of requesting the AR glasses.
At first, Walter was glad when the doctor came around to see him. It was a most welcome break from the monotony and silence. The temporary relief did not last long, however. Due to the dire economic conditions gripping the nation, the hospital would begin rationing insulin. Walter was not on the priority list. Hospice would be coming to see him soon.
“How long do I have?” Walter asked.
“It’s hard to say,” the doctor replied. “Based on your current condition, I would guess three to five days.”
But Walter didn’t have to wait that long. Late that night, as he was trying but failing to sleep, all the lights went out. He knew this because the PBS station playing re-runs on television clicked off. Power outage, the whole hospital was dark. Even the background noise of machinery, monitors, and ventilation systems abruptly ceased. Walter realized with dread this meant his dialysis machine had stopped too.
Hours slipped past in the aching silence. Walter had no idea how long he just lay there, slowly dying, alone in the darkness.
Then he heard the soft rustle as the wardroom door cracked open. The soft glow of a handheld light, probably from a cellphone, illuminated the door frame.
“Hello?” Walter called out, unable to conceal the strain in his voice.
There was no answer. “Hello?” he called again, desperately.
In reply, the door slammed shut, and the light disappeared.
“Please!” Walter felt panic gripping him tightly. “Please don’t leave me alone in here! I’m in trouble! Please don’t leave me like this!”
When no reply came, Walter lost control and broke into uncontrollable sobbing. "Not like this," he keened, "Oh God please, not like this."
He was still weeping when the light returned, and Melanie entered the wardroom, illuminated only by the glow of her cell phone light.
“Walter?” she called softly.
"Oh, Melanie, thank God!" Walter called back, "I'm here. Please don't go. I'm here."
As she drew closer, Walter could tell, even in the gloom, that the young caregiver had been crying.
“Oh Walter,” her voice was ragged and tortured, "I'm so sorry." She repeated that. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry."
“No, it’s all right.” Walter was stunned to find himself attempting to comfort her, instead of the other way around. “It’s all right,” he repeated, but she was inconsolable. “Melanie, you’re the only good thing in this whole hospital. Please stop crying. I’m all right now that you’re here. I just didn’t want to die alone in the dark. Please stay with me just a little longer. It’s all right! Why are you still crying?”
Melanie was shuddering with barely suppressed sobs. “Didn’t… didn’t Lester tell you?” She finally blurted.
“No…” Walter stared at her, his brows furrowed, not understanding. “Tell me what, dear?”
“I had to do it! Prices have gone up so much, and my husband lost his job. There’s been no food for weeks.”
“Lester caught me. I thought for sure he told you. I’m so sorry. I’ve got kids.”
With that, Melanie lunged through the darkness and began grabbing items off of Walter’s food tray and shoving them in her pockets.
“Melanie, what are you doing?”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry Walter!” She gasped one last time and then fled into the darkness.
So that’s why Lester told her about hell. It made sense. Too much sense. As Walter lay in the darkness with his life slipping silently away from him, he wondered if it was too late for him to repent. The economy is global. You can't just blame ME! He thought, but even to him, the argument sounded weak.