Thanks to some timely string-pulling on the part of Dr. Ali, I was moved out of the bustling community cardiac recovery room and relocated to a standard-issue two-person room further down the hall.
Instead of five roommates—the constant chatter, the beeping machines, and the public attempts to defecate into portable space toilets—I would now have just one person to concern myself with.
This person was an older man. His hair was a dull, militaristic grey, shorn close to his pumpkin-shaped skull. He wore heavy eyeglass frames that made him appear curious and frustrated at once. He looked like an unemployed owl.
The unemployed owl would not have been out of place—not at all—in the background of one of my grandmother’s fading Moose Club Polaroids from the 70’s.
When I initially walked into the room I found him sitting in the chair next to his bed, eating his dinner. He was hunched in a primal position over his tray, elbows planted firmly on the portable table. He held his face about six inches above the tray. This strange intimacy with the tray was presumably done to maximize his tray-to-mouth eating speed. The man ate so fast that his plastic fork clacked against the plastic tray like a cuckoo clock: tock, tock, tock.
He introduced himself as Donald. Or Harry. Or Bernard. It was something like that. What his real name was didn’t matter to me.
I would come to know him only as Wombat.
I was carrying the Sunday Times under my arm when I walked into the room. I decided to get things off on the right foot here. I asked Wombat if he’d like the paper.
Wombat ceased his manic food-shovelling. He looked at me. His teeth were as yellow as squash. He blinked a few times. I could tell that he was sizing me up.
After a few moments, he put his fork down on his tray and greedily rubbed his hands together. “Oh, boy,” he said. “I’d love a free paper.”
I told him that I loved a paper, too. “So we have something in common,” I said.
I handed it over, then climbed into my bed by the window. In my peripheral vision, I watched as Wombat opened each section of the paper. He snapped the sections savagely, as if showing the paper his primal dominance over them. Then he scattered the sections all around him wantonly—on his portable table, across the bed—the same way my father had spread newspapers around when we carved Jack-O-lanterns when I was a kid.
After that, Wombat re-planted his elbows, one on each side of his tray. He lowered his face and grabbed his fork. The cuckoo clock rhythm resumed: tock, tock, tock.
When I’d handed him the paper, I noticed half of a banana on his tray. The hospital routinely served banana halves as a kind of depressing dessert. The banana halves always had the peels still on them, as if the cook couldn’t be bothered with removing the damn peels. The circular, white section of exposed banana on the end, where the cook had cut it in two, was already browning, already on the decline.
A few minutes later, Wombat shoved his tray away from him and let out a burp that sounded like an enormous pair of khakis splitting wide: BRAAAPPP. Wombat made no attempt to be discreet.
He shoved the wheeled tray with so much force that it coasted across the room, coming to a stop against the far wall in front of the grey screen of the television. He got back into his bed and continued to read the paper, harrumphing and chuckling to himself now and then. He sometimes whispered sentences to himself like, “Those selfish idiots,” and “Look at this silly asshole. Spouting and spewing, spouting and spewing.” He threw the Travel section on the floor. “The hell do I need you for,” he said, pointing one of his fat fingers at the Travel section, which he was obviously punishing. “I already live in the greatest goddamn country in the world.”
I noticed Wombat’s shipwrecked tray. It was cleaned to military perfection. The plastic silverware looked like bones after a kill. Bizarrely, the sad, declining banana? It was gone—gone completely. Most bizarrely of all, I didn’t see the peel anywhere. My post-stroke brain fixated on that missing banana peel. What had happened to the peel? Where had the peel gone?
I once had a lovely girlfriend many years ago who ate apples entirely, core and all. Is it possible that Wombat had eaten the banana peel, too? I thought. I wondered what a banana peel would do to the digestive tract.
Wombat settled his bear-like body in his bed. He spent several minutes arranging the covers to his satisfaction. Then he went quiet. He held his breath. I could tell that he was waiting for something. Over the next 10 seconds, Wombat released a volley of military-grade farts.
They sounded like a row of rifles being fired ceremoniously at a serviceman’s funeral.
Crack-boom. Crack-boom. Crack-boom.
Once everything was out, including one final, small, smelly “cherry on top” at the end, he relaxed. His mattress groaned underneath him. He began to breathe normally again. A few seconds later, Wombat started to snore.