Short Story The Painless Euthanasia Roller Coaster
I’m the one about to die, and he’s the one crying?
Anders Lücke phases in and out of the dinner party, playing the part of the lonely, barely invited drunk—though he knows it’s a part he isn’t exactly playing— until something rare occurs: A topic is broached that rivets him. Fritz Baumann, still in his forties and already vice-chair of the physics department from which Anders accepted forced retirement ten years ago, mentions, casually enough, that he has heard of a young man who has designed a prototype of what he calls “the Painless Euthanasia Roller Coaster,” a roller coaster designed to kill those who are in chronic pain, or who simply feel they’ve lived too long, with one last, theoretically painless ride. “A prototype has apparently already been set up in an undisclosed location in the foothills of the Alps, awaiting volunteer test subjects,” Baumann says, while his wife pours him more wine.
The conversation drifts onward from here, not stopping very long on this topic, as if all topics deserved equal attention, but there is, for Anders, nothing else. So he nods off again, into a dream of the roller coaster, his body flying around its merciless but somehow painless curves, until, as usual, a pair of hands appears in his armpits and an attached voice says, “Let’s get you home,” and then, after an equally typical dizzy spell in a taxicab, he’s back in his damp bed, and then, a few hours later, in his usual seat at the Café Schober, stirring his Milchkaffee and picking apart his apple strudel while roaming from one headline to another in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, until, this morning, something changes: In the back of the final section of the paper, where the obituaries and personal ads are quarantined, he comes across a small, ambivalently worded article about the Painless Euthanasia Roller Coaster, and he can sense, even before he’s done reading, that maybe, drab and shapeless and unending as his days have come to seem, and may in all likelihood—Anders is a man of science, a man of objectivity—actually be, maybe this is that for which I’ve been waiting all my life, in the obvious and moronic sense in which everyone is waiting all their lives for death, yes, of course, he thinks, but, leaving his few coins on the table and creaking painfully to his feet, perhaps in a deeper and more personally specific sense as well. Maybe here, at last, is something special. Something in this world meant just for me.
Over the course of that day, spent, as all days, wandering the old and drafty streets of the city, from the edge of the university where he’s no longer welcome to the alley of used booksellers whose wares no longer speak to him, Anders comes to see that the roller coaster, and nothing else, will be the culmination of his tenure on earth. Suicide has always struck him as a weakness not dissimilar to that of lying in bed all day eating sweets, an option not to be considered seriously by full-grown men and women who have looked existence in the eye and recognized it for what it is. But the roller coaster seems like something else, a form of suicide too sophisticated to go by that pedantic term. An evolution in the science of how lives end, an option I would not have thought possible, he thinks, deciding here and now to find a means of surmounting the line between idea and action, a means of consecrating my death to research, he thinks, though he knows the real reason is more than this, buried deeper within him.
So Anders begins moving through the several networks of which he is still a tangential part, from one so-called expert to another, until he emerges a month or so later in a field several miles beyond the outermost Zürich suburbs, wearing a plastic windbreaker and the pressed khakis of the professor he used to be. He extends his hand to a surprisingly young scientist who introduces himself as Jürgen Trakl, self-proclaimed inventor of the Painless Euthanasia Coaster, among other devices, “some public,” he mutters with poorly affected modesty, “and a great many others not.”
Anders’ attention is already on the steep, wild curves of the apparatus, jutting upward toward the occluded moon, each loop narrower and more vicious than the last.
“You understand what this is, yes?” he hears the young man inquire, in the clipped, hasty manner of a scientist eager to dispense with formalities and get down to the substance of his experiment.
Anders, of course, is just as eager. “I do. The roller coaster, if it works, will kill me. All this,” he gestures at the field, the stars, the Alps, “will go away.”
Jürgen nods, clearly relieved to be dealing with so sanguine a subject. “The torque of the loops, combined with the acceleration of the car, will pool increasingly more blood in your lower extremities, first your thighs, then your shins, then your feet, until, by the final loop, your heart will be unable to recover that blood and you will, quite painlessly, switch off.” He looks at the roller coaster, as if to verify that what he’s just said about his own work is correct. Then he adds, “Of course, the EU would never approve its testing. Nevertheless, following the illogic typical of bureaucratic bodies the world over, they’d be only too glad to approve its use were it first to be proven effective and, most importantly, painless. You realize, however, that we cannot guarantee this will be the case. Correct?”
After Anders nods, Jürgen claps him on the back. “Very good then. Also, and this is my proudest achievement with regards to the project, a moment of euphoria will theoretically occur in the very last instant. A weightless interregnum at the bottom of the roller coaster’s ultimate descent, as the oxygen is pumped for the last time out of your lungs. A moment of, and please pardon the poetic phrase, ultimate mental clarity. You may well come to know, at the very edge of death, that which, had you known it sooner, could have rendered your life a success, if you’ll pardon my bluntness in saying so.”
Jürgen wipes a tear from his cheek, and Anders has to repress a scowl. I’m the one about to die, he thinks, and he’s the one crying? “Thank you,” he says. “That all sounds fine. Now shall we?”
Anders is strapped into his car, a lone rider in the vast Swiss night. Without human preamble but after some mechanical stuttering, the ride twists up an initial series of loops, rocking back and forth, reminding Anders of the roller coaster in Turin he rode as a child with his parents in the years after the Second World War. The memory brings a tear to his eye, as the roller coaster tilts upward, gaining speed, then barreling down, twisting him violently though not quite painfully, jostling his organs, raining blood inside his head. He finds himself wondering when it’s going to happen, when, not to mention what, the crucial moment will be. The borderline that the roller coaster will take him across, such that he now begins to picture it not as a modern euthanasia device but as a simple death train, dragging its condemned passenger to the territory from which there is no return, just as there wasn’t for the millions deported on trains through this country and all those surrounding it during the years in which he was a little boy.
But then he thinks no, this mustn’t be my last thought. These mustn’t be my last thoughts, as they were for too many people already. The roller coaster knocks his head to one side, flipping him over, jolting him to the left and then the right as his mind goes blank.
When he comes to, Jürgen and his assistants are hovering over him, collecting his breath on a mirror, shining lights in his eyes. He tracks an expression of profound disappointment on Jürgen’s face as the safety bar clicks open and the assistants help him to his feet. Running his hands through his hair, Jürgen says, “So it didn’t work after all. How could it not have worked? We tested it on so many dummies, so many straw men, so many weight-calibrated mannequins.”
Anders is in no hurry to correct them with the conviction he now feels, the conviction that they’re wrong, that it did indeed work, and that this, all of it, here and now, is the other side. So this is death, he thinks, observing the scientists’ faces as if they belonged to a line of sentient robots. I thought it would be stranger, more foreign, the way I’d always pictured Africa before my fellowship in Cape Town. He goes on thinking along these lines as he wanders into the night, ready to walk for hours, indifferent to Jürgen’s cries of, “Where are you going? Come back here, we need to test your vital signs . . . come back here this instant!”
Here begins a new phase for Anders, one spent in his apartment, among his books and science journals and the bills piling up, all of which hold solely aesthetic interest now, purged of all bearing on his future, now that he doesn’t have one.
Early in this phase, the Swiss government officially bans further testing on the Painless Euthanasia Roller Coaster, now that it’s been proven ineffective (Anders has quite a laugh at seeing this announced in the Zeitung one morning). Zürich instead builds a park and bike trail around the installation, allowing the brutal metal curves to remain, having been recast, during a dramatic announcement at Art Basel, as “the single most daring step in large-scale conceptual land art in a generation,” and rewarding Jürgen, who has cast off his white lab coat for the black T-shirt and leather jacket of an urbane artiste, handsomely. Anders can’t help but smile at the shameful compromises continually made by the living in their insectoid desperation to persevere. With a feeling akin to fondness, he remembers the anger he would have felt ten or twenty years ago, when he was still alive.
Still, he can’t deny that buying a simple sandwich and a bottle of wine at the corner market and taking the city bus out to what’s now called CoasterPark, and eating it beside the gleaming metal structure, in the foothills of the Alps, amidst the crying of babies and the laughter of young couples, some of them German, some French, some Arabic, while behind them lurk young Coaster enthusiasts, pale students sporting T-shirts and hats and even tattoos of its sinusoidal design, is a charming and sometimes even transcendent means of spending a Sunday.
On days like this, Anders looks at the loops of the roller coaster, each narrower and steeper than the last, and wonders which one he died on, where the crucial turn was. Then, thinking back on the whole of his life, he has the distinct feeling of being an old man, still living, faced once again with the roller coaster he loved as a boy, when he was small and fresh and full both of life and the nascent fear of death, all of it combined in the thrill that only this one ride could induce. At moments like this, he finds it isn’t difficult to imagine how he’d feel if he were merely old, not dead, looking in wonder at the unchanged metal track he rode more than half a century ago, when Europe was still emerging from the hell of its own making, and he finds he can’t help tearing up as he wonders how it could possibly be that he, an old man drunk on white wine at noon, is still here, while that boy, so much more worthy of life and so much more willing to live it, is not, and never will be again.