In retrospect, it would have been better if my wife had let me stay home to see Meet the Press instead of making me schlep across town to watch Jim Wallace die.
I’d known Jim since back when I was in the service, but I didn’t consider him a friend. So when Rose interrupted my programs to tell me she’d just got a call from the hospital and that Wallace was in intensive care and asking for me, I said I’d have plenty of time to see him at his funeral.
“You have to go visit him, Buck. You can’t ignore a dying man’s last request.”
“You’d be surprised, darling, by what I can ignore. I got a long history of being ignorant.”
I capitulated, though, after I lodged my token objection. I saw no point in fighting with Rose. After sixty-four years of marriage, she knew all my weak points.
Jim was downtown at the MED, too far away for me to drive. It was getting hard to remember where things were and how they fit together, so my world had become a gradually shrinking circle, with the house in the middle of it. But that excuse wouldn’t save me; Wallace’s daughter, Emily, offered to come and pick me up, even though I’d never met her before.
“Thank you for doing this, Mr. Schatz,” she said as she backed her car out of my driveway. “I know it must seem weird that Daddy is asking for you, but he’s nearing the end, and they’ve got him on a lot of stuff, for the infection and for the pain, and for his heart. He’s sort of drifting back into the past.”
She was a couple of years past her fiftieth, I guessed; the flesh around her jawline was just beginning to soften. She was wearing sweats and no makeup and looked like she hadn’t slept in a long time.
“He’s not so coherent all the time, and sometimes, when he looks at me, I’m not sure if he knows who I am.” She stifled a sob.
This was shaping up to be a real swell morning. I made a grunting sound that I thought might seem sympathetic and started to light a cigarette.
Her face kind of pursed up a little. “Do you mind not smoking in my car?”
I minded, but I let it slide.
Visiting people in the hospital was a pain in the ass; I knew going in that they wouldn’t let me smoke, and I always worried a little that they wouldn’t let me leave. I was eighty-seven years old and still buying Lucky Strikes by the carton, so everyone figured I was ripe to keel over.
Jim Wallace was in the geriatric intensive care unit, a white hallway full of filtered air and serious-looking people. Despite all the staff’s efforts to keep the place antiseptic, it stank of piss and death. Emily led me to Jim’s room, and the glass door slid shut behind us and sealed itself with a soft click. Norris Feely, Emily’s overweight husband, was sitting in a plastic chair, staring at game shows on a television mounted on the wall above the bed. I thought about asking him to switch it over to my talk program, but I didn’t want to give anyone the impression that I was willing to stay for very long.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Schatz,” he said, without looking away from the screen. “Pop has told us a lot about you.” He extended his hand, and I shook it. His fingers were plump and sweaty, and he had more hair on his knuckles than he did on his head, but his nails were manicured and coated with clear polish, so they stood out like little pink rhinestones stuck onto some hirsute, misshapen sausages.
A weak voice from the bed: “Buck? Buck Schatz?” Wallace was hooked up to an IV, a heart monitor, and something I thought might be a dialysis machine. He had a tube in his nose. His skin had taken on a waxy yellow pallor, and the whites of his eyes were brownish and filmy. His breath came in slow rasps and smelled like disease. He looked horrible.
“You look good, Jimmy,” I said. “You’ll beat this yet.”
He let out a rattling cough. “Reckon not, Buck. I suppose I’m not too long for this world.” He waved a feeble hand, a mostly unsuccessful attempt at a dramatic gesture.
“I wish things were different,” I said, which meant that I wished Jim had been kind enough to die without bothering me about it.
“God, how’d we get so old?”
“If I’d seen it coming, I’d have got out of the way.”
He nodded, as if that made a lot of sense. “It means so much that you’re here.”
I didn’t see why it was so important to Jim to share his final hours with somebody who thought he was kind of an asshole. Maybe he found comfort in familiarity.
He pointed a quivering finger at Norris and Emily. “Go away for a minute,” he told them. “Gotta have some old war talk with Buck, in private.”
“Dad, the war was sixty years ago,” said Emily. Her nose was running, and her upper lip was damp with snot.
“Don’t tell me when’s what.” Jim’s eyes seemed to slide out of focus for a moment, and it took him a couple of deliberate blinks to regain his bearing. “I know what I need to say, need to say to Buck. Get.”
“Daddy, please.” Her voice trembled as she spoke.
“Maybe I’d better go home,” I said hopefully. But Jim had gotten hold of my wrist, and he was hanging on with surprising strength.
“No, Buck stays,” he wheezed as he jabbed a finger in his daughter’s direction. “Privacy.”
Norris draped a protective arm over Emily and guided her gently out of the room. The sliding door clicked shut behind them, and I was left alone with the dying man. I tried to pull my arm out of his sallow claw, but he held tight.
“Jim, I know you’re a little confused, but the war was a long time ago,” I said.
He sat up a little, and his whole body shook with the effort. Those sunken yellow eyes were bulging in their sockets, and his loose jowls twisted with anguish. “I saw him,” he said. Phlegm rattled in his throat. “I saw Ziegler.”
Hearing that name was enough to knot my guts up. Heinrich Ziegler had been the SS officer in charge of the POW camp where we were stuck in 1944 after our unit got cut off and overrun in southern France.
“Ziegler’s dead, Jim,” I told him. “Shot by the Russians during the fall of Berlin.”
“I know he wasn’t so good to you, Buck, when he found out you was Jewish.”
Without thinking, I rubbed with my free hand at the ridges of scar tissue on my lower back. “He wasn’t so good. But he’s dead.” I was sure this was true. I’d gone looking for Ziegler after the war.
“Probably dead. Probably by now. But I seen him. Forgive me.”
He was still hanging on to my wrist, and I was starting to feel nauseous, either from what Jim was saying or from the stink coming off him.
“What do you mean?”
“I was working as an MP, manning a roadblock between East and West in 1946, and he rolled up in a Mercedes-Benz.”
“No.” I felt a lump rise in my throat. “Not possible.”
Jim’s stare was fixed on the wall, and he didn’t seem to hear me. “He had papers with a different name, but I knew him when I saw him,” he said. “Lord help me, I let him go.”
“Why?” My mouth had gone dry. Side effect of all the damn pills I took. I swallowed, hard. “Why would you do that, Jim?”
“Gold. He had lots of those gold bars, like in the movies. I remember, the whole back end of the car was riding low from the weight of them. He gave me one, and I let him get away.”
“Son of a bitch.”
“We didn’t have no money. Never had none growing up. And we wanted to buy a house. We wanted to start a family.”
I didn’t say anything. I tried to wrench my arm away from him, but his grip held. One of the machines next to his bed started beeping louder.
“Forgive me, Buck,” he said. “I’m going over, very soon. I’m scared to die. Scared of being judged. Scared I’m going to hell for the bad things I’ve done. I can’t carry this weight with me. Tell me it’s all right.”
I tugged my arm a little harder. I had to get out of there; I was going to be sick. “Forgive you? You knew what kind of a monster Ziegler was. You saw the things he did to our boys. You saw the things he did to me, for God’s sake. All a man’s got is his integrity, and you sold yours, Jim.”
I gave a sharp yank, trying to extricate myself from his grasp, but he hung on, looking at me with pleading eyes. I gave up on getting away and, instead, leaned in close to him. “If there’s a hell, the two of you belong there together.”
He must not have liked that, because his whole body convulsed, his back arched, and the heart monitor started screaming. Two doctors and a nurse ran into the room, and through the open door, I could see Emily in the hallway with tears streaming down her face.
“He’s coding,” shouted one of the doctors. “We need a crash cart.”
The other doctor pointed at me. “Get him out of here.”
“I’d be happy to go, Doc, if he’d just let me.” Jim’s hand was still wrapped around my wrist.
But the doctor was already pounding on Jim’s chest and squeezing the respirator bag over his mouth. The nurse came over to me and pried the clenched fingers off my arm. She pushed me back, out of the way, as the doctor hit Jim with the electric paddles. Jim’s body jumped. The doctor with the paddles looked to the nurse.
“Anything?” he asked.
The machine was still wailing.
“Gonna hit him again,” said the doctor, turning the voltage knob on the defibrillator.
“Clear.” The body seized up again, but the line on the monitor had gone flat.
The other doctor kept working the oxygen bag. I rubbed at my wrist; purple bruises were blossoming out from where Jim had squeezed. A couple of years back, my doctor put me on Plavix, a blood thinner, to keep me from having a stroke. The stuff made me bruise like an overripe peach.
I pulled out my pack of Luckys and flicked at the silver Dunhill cigarette lighter I carry around, but my hands were shaking so much, I couldn’t get the damn thing to spark.
“You can’t smoke in here,” the nurse told me.
“He don’t look like he minds much,” I said, gesturing at Jim.
“Yeah, well, his oxygen tank probably minds, mister,” she said, and she swept me into the hallway. The sliding glass door clicked shut behind me.
Norris was leaning against the wall, his face a slackened, puffy mask; Emily was pacing the floor, crying.
I touched her arm.
“There’s nothing more you can do for him,” I said. “But I need a ride home.”
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Friedman