In 1962 Murial switched to decaf.”
“I know that.”
“It was the year before John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed.”
“I also know that.”
“Murial never touched alcohol.”
“It was in 1962. Murial—”
“God dammit, John, I know. I know.”
His face has a look of injury, but even as he speaks I sense the difficulty he is having holding on to that simple emotion, and I watch his facial muscles return to what looks like thoughtfulness but is in fact the stalled confusion he is continually trying to press out of.
“What’s the matter?” he asks. “I say something?”
“No, John. It’s all right old pal. I’m going outside for a cigarette. C’mon.”
“Cigarettes are bad, Ralph.”
“I know that.”
On the porch as I light up he says, “Murial never smoked.”
I don’t answer. I’m coughing.
“That’s a bad cough, Ralph.”
Murial was John’s wife and it saddens me to imagine her meeting him as he is today. The old John, the man she lived with across the street from Sally and me for thirty-seven years, has been changed into someone who at times cannot remember his own name. Gone is the shy, cautiously smiling man who worked all those years in the IBM office on Claring Street in Coldchester, a man who was boring but was also kind, a quiet listener. The new John combines a micro-sized attention span with a ceaseless need to repeat himself, and whose personality has angled off in ways his shy wife would at times find extremely distressing. Yet he is my friend, and again we are neighbors: his room is three doors from mine on the second floor of Bradley Manor, Home for the Elderly.
John and Murial had one child, and Sally and I had one child. Our boy is dead. He died at age twenty-five in a car wreck, out in California where he’d gone to live. He was driving south on the coast highway near Monterey with another young man as passenger, and he lost control on a turn and dropped the car fifty feet onto rocks. The passenger was badly injured and after some weeks in a coma died. Ralph, Jr. died instantly and is buried in Millville next to his mother.
I have been living here at “The Manor,” as we call it, for three years eight months. John arrived three years before me.
John worked for IBM in a small office on Center Street in Coldchester where he was in charge of personnel. Bob, their son, is an accountant in Baltimore, married with four kids. He has visited his dad here at The Manor exactly twice. John’s wife Murial never worked; she died eleven years ago.
Sally. Did we love each other? I think so. Maybe, as I’m certain many people thought, my “love” was something closer to need, to obsession, maybe even fear. When I met her she was young and in good condition and sexy. Very, very sexy. A veritable sex magnet attracting certain types of men, and I was one of the types. My friend Pete, who’s been dead now over twenty years, used to tell me back then that I was crazy. “Leave her, Ralph,” he’d say. “Get your wheels going west and ride.”
Whatever it was between us, I’ll call it love. Over the years it came and went and I think when she died it was there. And it is here now, with me, although she is not. I wish she were here instead of underground in the Millville Cemetery.
No friends visit any more. I am not surprised. The Manor is just far enough north of Millville that you’d have to consider an overnight stay, and anyway the few friends of John and me still aboveground are in no condition for travel.
Mornings I’m often one of the first people awake and I sit alone at a table by the big window in the dining room, enjoying the quiet. I try not to smoke before breakfast. This morning I am watching Caspar the black-and-white cat as he walks carefully through the wet grass at the bottom of the yard. When he reaches a small patch of bare ground he sits and begins licking the haunch of his left rear leg, paw skyward. I can almost feel the effort it takes, pushing the rough surface of his tongue over the hair.
Next I hear the sounds of shuffling feet and aluminum walkers being lifted and placed with soft clunks, mumblings of old voices. When John comes down breakfast is just about to be served and we go get our trays. Dutch joins us in line. He was the fingerprint man at the Coldchester Police Department. The three of us return to our table and John and Dutch talk while I read the Republican and eat my shredded wheat. This morning there’s a story about someone having dumped a large amount of liquid waste into Lake Quassapaug, where I used to swim as a kid. Dutch is experiencing the beginnings of dementia and, oddly, he doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent of John’s. The two of them talk disconnectedly, trading information and seldom listening. Dutch recalls old cases and describes dusting for prints at crime scenes and John repeats his small stock of memories, winding his way inevitably back towards his description of how Murial broke free of caffeine.
Their talk is for me background until suddenly I hear my wife’s name—
“…and Sally was annoyed,” John is saying. “She did not like it.”
“What’s that, John?” I say.
“Sally didn’t like it.”
“Didn’t like what?”
“Sally. What about Sally?”
“You were talking about Sally.”
“I was not.”
“Dammit, John, I just heard you. What were you saying about Sally?”
We stare at each other, a quick collision of wills. This happens rarely, usually when I refuse to accede to his botched memory of some past event. Normally he will back down, looking briefly guilty. Instead, this morning he stares at me with a grim set to his face.
Suddenly he smiles. He has forgotten what we are talking about.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I say. “I need a smoke.”
We stand, picking up our trays. “Dutch?” I say. “You coming?”
“No thanks, boys. I’m busy. I’ve got a meeting.”
John and I carry our trays to the counter.
“Let’s have our meeting at the river,” I say.
Bright sun, a nice chill to the September air. Very faint smell of wet leaves. The Sewcataug is narrow up here in the northern part of the state, and John and I cross a lovely suspension footbridge paid for by Harvey Goss, whose severely Alzheimer’d wife, Kristine, is a fellow inmate. The river is flowing fast because of heavy rain during the last three nights.
I love this river. Ending up here in The Manor comes with some benefits, and the river is one. Years ago, downstream below Millville, where it gets wide, the Sewcataug was a sluice of chemicals and human sewage, you didn’t want to go near it. Both the Rubber Company and the Chemical had large visible open pipes spewing liquids day and night, making long multicolored skeins in the turd-colored water. Now the river has been cleaned, it has fish, you can swim in it.
We are halfway across the bridge when my cough grabs me. It comes now without warning, sharklike. The doc says I’m closing in on a portable oxygen tank. With my left hand I grip the rail, bent forward, gasping and hacking.
John looks as if he is going to cry. “Ralph—” he says. “Ralph—”
I ride it out. Finally I’m able to breathe again. I calm myself.
As I straighten up I say, “No problem, John.” We look down at the water. I suppress the urge to light a cigarette.
I’m puzzled by John’s mention of Sally, the tone of it. Curious, how every now and again for a few seconds he cuts free from the predictable cycling of his repertoire. I do not like the feeling that there is something between us waiting to be looked at and fixed. Marriage was often like that. And friendship still is. In fact all the personal: whatever is personal, you never rest in it and you never know where you are going. I have never liked that, never been good at it, and as evidence I submit my marriage. And myself as father. The similarities between playing the piano and improvising the personal are obvious, but why have I always preferred the piano, always been better at the piano, though I know the personal is more difficult, necessary, deeper?
Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the piano goes deeper. If only I were as good at the piano, at working a tune, as I know it is possible to be, then the piano would be better than anything, it would be enough.
But nothing is enough for John, where he’s heading. I see my responsibility towards him as coming down to one thing: keeping him aware of who he is as long as I can. Beyond that I have little to offer. I too am losing my mind, merely at a slower rate. I’m sure I’ll die first, as he is in better shape than me. I take a mean pleasure in thinking that when I croak, there my responsibilities end. A cruel thought, and I don’t like it, but it’s there, the same as when I read the paper and learn that half the mammal species are already extinct and I think, fuck it, I’m out of here.
John looks down at the water as if he sees an answer. There is a tenseness to his body, an attractive tenseness, arms at sides, fists tight, as if something important is happening. Never during the years of normality did he look like that. Back then he would have stood on this bridge grinning, faking it, inwardly ordering the grin to appear, the grin saying, isn’t this a nice view? But now you see that he really feels something, and he feels it intensely. Yet I have not a clue what it is. He is incapable of saying what it is. Why is that so? He forgets nearly everything, that I can understand. But why can he not say what he feels while he feels it?
For twelve years my job was to watch over two wire reducing machines at Mattatuck Metals in Coldchester. Each machine pulled a long length of thick crude wire into itself, forcing the wire through a steel diameter cooled by recirculating oil. The wire emerged thinner and clean, bright copper, and wound onto a spool. I could monitor the machines by ear and I often spent long periods looking out the window, smoking, watching the traffic on Chase Hill. The CR&L busses went up and down several times a day and sometimes I’d see someone I knew on the bus and we’d wave.
The job was easy but the tedium got harder and harder to take. Luck came to my rescue in the form of a phone call from Mal Letts, the superintendent at Memorial School. I barely knew Mal, but Bob Bona, a friend who ran the Shell station, heard about the janitor job and recommended me. Mal was one of his customers. “Ralph,” Mal said on the phone as if we were old buddies, “I’m aware of your interest in this job. Bobby Bona tells me you’re a natural for it. How about you stop in my office tomorrow and we’ll talk?”
So I took a sick day and went to see Mal. For all his self importance and his too-tight suits, he turned out to be a decent guy. I liked him. And I became a janitor.
Why this punishment? Oldness. Who can understand this question? And who am I asking?
It can go so far that you are unable to take action, to end it, to bring down total night. Physically may be worse than mentally. Where John is going he won’t even know he’s gone.
I might want someone to put a pillow over my face.
I didn’t put a pillow over Sally’s face, or Eric’s. Sally, in the single room in Coldchester Hospital, asking me when it was going to happen. How much longer, Ralph?
Eric, looking almost happy in the small hospice bed, mouth open, drugged out of his mind. I rested the palm of my hand on his bald head and looked into his bleary eyes.
“Ralph—” he said, trying to focus.
Last words. Last word to my friend.
Last words to my wife: “Sally, I love you.”
In here those words seem to me like lips flapping. In here everybody gets an “I love you” on their way into the dark.
Morning again. It’s just past 5:30.
My clock is not digital but it does glow in the dark. It’s an old General Electric that spent years on the small table next to Sally’s side of the bed. Sally looked at that clock every morning when she woke. When I woke I looked across Sally to see it. I brought it with me when I came to the Manor.
I’ve just woken from the oddest dream. I was crossing the Whittemore Bridge where it spans the river between Sewcataug and Union City. When I got to the far side I stopped and looked back and what I saw was a picture postcard of Sewcataug, a black and white photograph of where I’d just been. The picture was grainy and it was as big as the world, there was nothing beyond it. I could make out the Civil War monument in the distance. A 1947 Ford had just stopped at the traffic light coming off the bridge, and it was frozen in time. I was scared by the stillness and the lack of motion and I turned around, 180 degrees, facing toward Union City, and to my great relief that view wasn’t frozen, people were walking on the sidewalks and cars were moving. And to the left, angling down the hillside, was High Street, and up there, several blocks beyond my sight, on a flat ridge cut into the hillside, was the wooden three-decker where Sally grew up. Where one night I knocked on her door.
I knew John was in trouble the day I saw him standing alone in his front yard wearing only his boxer underpants. No shirt, old man’s sagging breasts, veined legs. Holding a coffee pot, looking about to cry.
I walked across the street, not sure he’d recognize me.
“Ralph! Where’s this go?”
Holding the chrome percolator by the handle, as if he’d never seen it before.
“Just put it down anywhere, John. Not important.”
“Here?” Looking down at the grass.
“Give it to me. I’ll take care of it.”
Handing it to me.
“Ralph—where’s Murial? I can’t find her.”
She’d been dead by then almost five years.
John’s son Bob came up from Baltimore, took his dad back down there. Nobody expected that to work. After about a month I got a call from Bob saying that he’d managed to get John into Bradley Manor. Bob sold the house and most everything in it, including the model trains in the basement.
I was still living alone in my place. I walked across the street to say goodbye.
“Good luck, John. I’m gonna miss you.”
“Bye, Ralph. Seems I’m going somewhere.”
Bob’s car in the driveway, the trunk open.
“It’s for the best I think John.”
“I guess, Ralph. Maybe you could come up to the same place. Where I’m going.”
“Maybe. The truth is, I don’t know where I’m heading. Maybe stick right here for the duration.”
Bob, helping his dad into the car. Then Bob comes across the grass and shakes my hand and thanks me.
“He wrote a check for five thousand dollars, Ralph. He handed it to a Jehovah’s Witness. Fortunately it was made out to Dwight Eisenhower.”
I went back to my house, sat in my living room chair and smoked and cried.
How bad off am I? How far am I behind John? How soon will I catch up? I seem to have forgotten most of my long-ago past. Other oldsters recall their early years in close detail. They seem to remember little else.
The one thing I do remember is milking. I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t milk a cow. The teat so fits the hand, as if the teat and the hand were made for each other. A milking machine is an invented convenience, and though it is here to stay it is nothing compared with centuries of men and women and children sitting on low three-legged stools, hands rhythmically squeezing the milk from the bag into thin jets, making that bucket-sound, liquid against the pail, and the foam-sound, accumulating milk. I can close my eyes and feel my cheek against a cow’s hairy warm body.
The memory of the feel of a cow’s teats is clearer to me than the face of the President on the television screen.
The President. You have to like the guy. “Bill.” That grin. He’s a man of the flesh. I have a fondness for Eisenhower that goes deeper, but Clinton has a crazy appeal. A man with a sense of humor who relishes power, who seems able to see the absurdity of it. He went on television, allowed himself to be questioned about having sex in the Oval Office, and he looked directly at the camera and swore that he did not consider getting a blowjob a sexual experience.
Dutch sat next to me in the rec room, watching, and he said, “The sonofabitch is going to get away with it.”
John, sitting on my other side, said: “I think he’s lying.”
Home at night to Sally. Sally doing women’s hair in the little extension we built onto the east side of the house. Those dryers, electric cones like large bullets pointing upwards, spaceship noses, the women with their wet permed heads up inside the cones. Loud electric whooshing. The women temporarily deaf, reading magazines.
Hilary runs this place. She is a smart cookie and I like her. She treats me as if I am not demented. I am not sure if I can trust her. I think she is honest. Or at least she is convincing when she’s acting honest. But of course my problem is that in spite of whatever anybody says or thinks I may in fact be at least very slightly demented.
Hilary wants me to quit smoking.
“Smoking is an old friend,” I say.
Hilary says that’s stupid.
I see her point.
I take a walk and light up.
And I cough.
“Ralph,” Hilary says, “are you sure that you have to be responsible for John?”
She says this with a certain caution. She isn’t certain how much I need to feel responsible for John, in order to keep living myself.
Hilary prefers to call inmates “residents.”
I asked her if she’s a lesbian and she said not. She says that question is rude and is based on her looks—cropped hair, squarish body, asexual face. She knows I have no problems with either her looks or her orientation, but the question annoys her anyway and I see I was wrong to ask it.
I think I love Hilary in something like the way I loved Sally in the period just after Ralph Junior died. This may have to do with Hilary being the “mother” of all of us inmates. These kinds of thoughts add to my fear that my mind may be failing faster than I realize.
“Hilary,” I say, “it doesn’t matter because I can’t help it. I feel responsible. Sometimes I’m not sure I like John. I’m not very nice to him.”
“You love him, Ralph.”
“Back in the world he was just my neighbor. Now he’s my best friend. I guess I want to keep him attached. I’m thankful he’s in such good health.”
Here I am again in a single room. When I was a very young man, during the years after I’d left home, I worked on farms because it was all I knew, and always I slept in a single room, eating with the family and sleeping in their house just as our hired hands had slept in our house and had eaten with us. People thought I was mad when I could have stayed at home and by the passage of time and steady work that I already knew how to do grow into owning my own farm, marrying and having children, raising them as I’d been raised, having food and money enough and a peaceful life. I didn’t know what I was doing or what I wanted other than to get away. I wasn’t happy. I was improvising day by day, trying in my way to break free. But from what? And into what? I applied to the state university but I didn’t like it, it seemed like more of the same, and I see now I should have stuck with it. I had the piano and I played wherever I found a piano and I got better, but never better enough, it was so hard, my ear wasn’t good enough, why did I choose the piano, why? What else was there, what else could I have done? I had my books. Always I had books. Sitting by myself in a chair reading. And my life, it has gone by. Everyone has died away from me, and the worst was my son, in a car falling through the air, falling onto rocks, he called to me in those last seconds, Dad . . .
No he didn’t.
I can still smell him, my little son. How can that be? So many years ago, in the hospital, in the same Coldchester Hospital where Sally died, I held him at the very beginning of all his twenty-five years, and I walked in the hallway past the nurses’ station, I sang to him “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
I first heard that song on a 78 by Pete Seeger.
I met Pete Seeger. I shook his hand. I wonder if he’s dead. There was an outdoor music concert near Hartford. I went up there by myself. I was standing waiting to use a toilet and out stepped Pete. He was young, he was tall and thin and he had a red nose. I said hello and he smiled, showing his crooked teeth. He shook my hand and I told him I liked his music. He was a good man, in his later years he helped clean up the Hudson River.
Sally and I took a trip to West Point once, and from the high cliffs you look down onto that huge river, massiveness of flow glinting in the sunshine. During the Revolutionary War they strung a chain across to stop ships coming up. Sally asked directions and a cadet in a deep precise voice answered her and called her “Ma’am.”
She was never sure she married the right man. But I was steady and I loved her and I didn’t leave her when the drinking was bad.
Maybe she loved me, maybe not.
She had this ridiculous idea that she could have had a richer more varied life with a different husband, mixing with higher-toned people. She was crazy, but not dangerously, and she came to terms with drinking, handled it and even at times used it wisely, which few drinkers do. I wish I could bring her to life in my thoughts. She is fading. She is thinning out and I want to hold her.
Meta is 103. Or so everyone says. Her lips are like the rounded edge of a drawstring hole, but always moving, a tiny nervous jiggling. She seems to peer dimly at a strange inner landscape that she is curious about but can’t get direct access to.
I visit her in her room. She likes to see me, I know she does. But there isn’t much sign of it. It’s the feeling I get, and I imagine myself in her place, wouldn’t I want a visitor?
She sits in her room in her light blue wingback armchair. Her eyes are bright, the pupils unexpectedly sharp-edged with a hint of intelligence and humor.
“I don’t remember my daughters. But that one was stupid.”
“What were their names?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Did you have a husband?”
Coming home from the factory, the loudness of the machines still in my ears, catching the 5:30 CR&L to the bottom of Yale Avenue, walking up the hill. Home to Sally. The rounded taut skin of her stomach, running my hand slowly over yet-to-be-born Ralph Junior. And Sally didn’t drink all that long time, months, until right near the end.
The small quick movements of Sally’s hands. Lovely hands, lovely fingers. How clear to me now in memory, such detail.
I’m lying on my bed in the late afternoon with the door closed. Nap time.
Now I hear someone slowly walking down the hall, slow and pausing. I recognize the sound of Ruth Spickerman, I can picture the little knitted bag in the tray of her walker.
Longing for a smoke.
The smell of urine in these walls never goes away. Do I myself smell of piss?
Here comes John. His footsteps. The door opens.
“Hi, John. What’s up?”
“You resting, Ralph?”
“John, I’m tired. I never knew how tired a person could be and not be asleep. Or dead. Tell me something, do you smell the urine?”
“Maybe somebody pissed in their bed, Ralph.”
“Maybe every night. I don’t. But I sure do smell it. And I’m a goddamned smoker, for Christ’s sake.”
“You sure are a smoker, Ralph.”
“Maybe we all piss in our beds but we’re too old to notice.”
“I don’t piss in my bed.”
“Me neither, John.”
A “blind date.” Do they still use that term?
Sally answers my knock at the top floor of a wooden three-decker on a Union City hillside. She is short, smiling, looking up at me with very dark eyes. She stands close, wearing a tight dress with wide horizontal stripes of brown and cream. I’ve just climbed the exterior stairs in the cold, and I watch as she puts on her coat. She and her mother, a small Italian woman with a kindly face, exchange glances that seem to me oddly troubled. Then out, down the stairs. The engine of the Buick is idling, its exhaust plume white in the cold air. Richard is at the wheel, a girl next to him, and Robert, his twin, is in the back seat with a girl named Carol. It is she who has fixed me up with Sally. The rear door swings open and we slip into the warmth, settling in close.
But wait. The Buick I am picturing is not the car we picked her up in. I have inserted into an old memory the ’55 Buick that Sally and I owned so much later, the car Ralph Junior drove to take his driving test when he was 16. That car was almost new, it was the newest car we ever owned, we bought it when Sally’s Uncle Ricco suddenly died and his widow sold it to us for a song. The car the twins drove was a Model A Ford, and it didn’t have rear doors.
What is going on? I am mixing memories across time zones. What seemed very clear is not clear at all.
Ralph, Jr. ate in the wooden highchair that I’d eaten in as a child. It had a certain smell, maybe from food anciently caught in tiny cracks.
I eased the little spoon with mashed food into his toothless mouth. His perfect skin, his lovely face with its curious dark eyes, his mother’s eyes.
Lifting him out of the chair when he’s done eating. His beautiful smell. His arms tight around my neck.
“We have a piano, Mr. Bernier,” Hilary said. “It’s not much but perhaps you’d like to see it.”
It had been decided that I must go into a home. Charlie Owen’s son, who owns the liquor store at the bottom of Yale Avenue, and Maria, the young wife next door to me, conferred and decided it was time to act. They drove me up here. I was in much better shape then than I am now, but I was already bad enough to cause alarm. I’d nearly set fire to the kitchen. I’d left a pan on the burner with nothing in it and then when I realized what I’d done I put the pan down on a dish towel, the towel caught fire, flames climbing fast up the side of a cabinet door. But I had the whole thing out in a few seconds. I could’ve made the same mess thirty years earlier.
The piano wasn’t much, a worn and loose-jointed upright with no name on it, it’d been played plenty but all the keys worked and it was approximately in tune. The previous player, a woman named Ruth whose specialty was hymns, had died a few months earlier. I sat down and played the B-flat blues I always use when trying out a piano and the tone reminded me of the time I heard Roosevelt Sykes up in Hartford, him trying to get music out of the wreck of a piano in the old Alumni Club. I said yes, that will do. I signed onto this place for the duration and everyone was relieved, including Hilary. For her my main qualifications were a pension and an intact mind, so she bumped me to the head of the waiting list.
“John. What’s the news?”
“John. Come up toward the present. That’s where I am.”
“Sure, Ralph, I know.”
“But what is it you know?”
“What do you mean, Ralph?”
“Do you remember Elvis?”
He stares at me. Finally, grinning, he says: “hound dogs.”
“What about hound dogs, John?”
“I don’t remember.”
“It was a song. ‘You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog.’”
“Murial sings in church.”
“She sang. Did you sing?”
“The songs in church. Did you sing with Murial?”
“What happens when you try?”
“Murial’s coffin was up front. Below the pulpit.”
“What color was it.”
“On a silver stand?”
“How did you know that, Ralph?”
“I was there. We’ve been over this before.”
He cries. With such quickness. I see the dark spots of his tears on the table where we’re eating lunch. Is this cruel, am I torturing the poor guy? Back in the old life, you wouldn’t have seen him cry. You would have seen that small partial smile conceding anything, that smile saying it’s all fine, everything is fine.
“Arctics.” When I was a kid we pronounced them “ardicks.” Rubber boots made down in Sewcataug at the Rubber Company, black flexible boots worn over your shoes. The fronts opened widening upwards over an inner folded softer rubber, making them easy to put on and off. Buckles, two or three or four depending on the height of the boot, each little buckle like a tiny sideways ladder hinging onto a small hook, tightening. As you grew older you got more buckles, you were a big kid when you had four. The boots were cheap at the factory where they sold seconds.
The feel of wearing them in the snow. The sound of compacting early morning fresh snow.
We had six milking cows, Jerseys.
Those are the earliest cows I remember, and I remember them because I wrote them in a school notebook.
The milk room was low and dark and the three electric bulbs were spattered with cow manure.
I can’t remember back before the electricity came in, although we kept the kerosene lamps in the house and in the milk room for when the power failed.
My father, bending forward in the dimness and lifting a milk pail. With his other hand he lifts the small three-legged stool and moves to the next cow.
The gliding wide push broom was not in fact a broom, more of a mop. A stiff wide wiper blade attached to the bottom of an angling-down long dowel of a handle, the blade encased in a soft sleeve. You didn’t wet it, you pushed it dry over a wax-shined floor.
Linoleum in the cafeteria. Pattern of cream-yellow and rust-red squares.
Waxed hardwood boards in the gym. Echoing walls. The coach yelling. Sneaker squeaks as the kids stop and turn.
Sally sitting next to me in the bleachers watching a game. Adolescent boys in their loose-fitting maroon shorts. Their concealed young brand-new dicks swinging or packed into jockstrap pouches. What did Sally feel, sitting next to her varicose cigarette-smelling husband of years?
Jesus but that was a nightmare. What a demonic disease.
Your typical penis is made of muscle-walled chambers that get filled with blood, stiffening the shaft to an aroused fleshy hardness that expands a woman’s imagination, making her shift in her seat.
But in a Pyronie’d dick, not all those chambers are fillable. Some stay empty so the shaft is not symmetrical and it bends. And in my case it bent pathetically, pinched at the base and leaning, almost folded over.
Not a good thing to hold or behold. Sally disliked touching it. And when I looked at it I longed for death.
Hilary loves me, I am one of her “characters,” one of the passing near-dead it is her job to care for and account for, and I am set apart somewhat because I’m relatively intact, humorous, and she anticipates with a certain pleasure coming to my room and sitting in the visitor’s chair.
I worry that my room stinks of urine but Hilary assures me that it doesn’t. I am not incontinent, which is another example of the luck I fail to appreciate. It’s just that other rooms smell of urine and if the smell gets extreme they make you leave. An inspector comes, or maybe just happens to notice, to sniff as he walks past your room on some other mission, and your only hope then is to have a catheter and a leg bag installed and keep that whole rig clean and don’t have the bag come loose in the night because you haven’t secured a connection and you wake up and everything’s soaked and there’s one more check on the getting-senile list. You can find yourself being carried out the door, not dead but on your way to Maple Hill where they are set up for urinary accidents and much else.
John loves me. Although he doesn’t completely know it. I said to him, “John, I call it crazy love. You love me but you forget you love me.” It could be the title of a country western song.
God damn Sonny B., upstairs in 2–13 with his country western records, Hank Snow and Garth Brooks, the worst of the fakers. That carefully constructed break in the voice, the fantasy of the old days out in the country when life was simple. But Hank Williams, he really did live in the country, and it was not easy country, it was money-poor and pain country, and he showed us how serious it was by dying drunk in the back seat of a chauffeured automobile almost before he was grown up.
Another of my stupid mistakes was my snobbish disapproval of Ralph, Jr.’s country western records. Wanting him to play jazz. Trying to teach him “I’ve Got Rhythm.” My fucking word did you ever hear of anything so stupid, so blind? When he was gone, long before he died, there was a pile of records in his closet, and I stood alone in his room thinking, yes, I miss those songs. At first I was glad not having to hear that pretend lonesomeness, but I wanted it back, just like I wanted him back, playing his three-chord songs on his guitar. I have always been a selfish prick. Why could I not have wised up? Started to love my son before he was airborne with seconds to live?
I’m tired. My chest is paining. Would I die now if I could? That movie where the old French peasant puts on his one suit, knots his tie, lays down on the bed and composes himself, grows still, and in the morning is found dead.
Ralph Jr., getting out of bed early of a Saturday morning going softly in his pyjamas down the stairs to watch cartoons on the old Sylvania black-and-white TV. Sally asleep next to me, the curtains silently filtering the early light. Were there cartoons on the TV in the days of black-and-white? I think yes. How much do I invent?
We had a roof leak staining our bedroom ceiling. Harry Spickerman told me there was a guy just moved in on White Avenue who did small repairs. “They say he’s reliable,” Harry said.
I walked up our street, Yale Avenue, the gradually sloping hill, turned left onto Goff, passing Leo Phelan’s garage radio repair shop. Leo was a widower, his wife died in a car crash, he was in the car with her and he never drove again. Leo’s no doubt dead by now. I wonder where is his daughter Barbara? She was in the same class as Ralph Junior.
Turning right at the end of Goff onto White Avenue, past on the left that wooden three-decker where the woman—what was her name—Nichols?—took in foster children. I used to wonder what horrors. That pale little quiet guy, Donny I think his name was, got hit by a car and the cops drew a chalk outline and Ralph Jr. said there was blood on the pavement where Donny’s head hit. Then on the right was Wrogg’s, with wrecked cars in the back yard, where Ralph Jr.’s pal Tommy lived. Then two houses further on the small bungalow with the screened porch where I found Eric. I’d never paid much attention to that house. The day was chilly, a late fall Saturday, and as I approached I heard a banjo. I stood for a few minutes before knocking on the door, listening, and as I did I realized there was a guitar playing too.
A few months after I came to the Manor I secretly made a plan. Some night after general bedtime, after Hilary was asleep, I would walk out. Using a street map I’d found on the book shelf in the rec room I decided on the route I would take for the first two miles. Beyond that I would bear northwest because in that direction lay extensive woods. Dressed as warmly as possible, carrying a small plastic bottle of water, I would walk as far as I could and then I’d lie down and die.
People who have come to the very edge of death by exposure have written about it. At first the coldness seems unbearable, but that feeling gets replaced by a tiredness, a pleasant dreaming swoon, and in that swooning state you fall asleep and don’t wake up. Of course, those accounts might be fanciful personal creations, but even if the truth proved to be nothing more than terrible shivering cold, I would simply endure it, and I would die. Thus I would avoid the nightmare endings I saw happening around me at the Manor.
Hilary has a night-locking system in place which allows for quick release during a fire. This is to keep the seriously Alzhiemer’d ones from wandering off at night, which in daytime they regularly manage to do. The police pick them up fairly easily. I figured out how to bypass the night system and go out a cellar door.
Until recently I’ve rested on that plan. I’ve run it over during the day or as I lay with my head on the pillow awaiting sleep, and it has brought me a fragile but serviceable solace. But now I’m afraid I may no longer have it. I think some essential ingredient, some ability or strength of will, may have slipped away. I think I understand now what happens, how easy it is to pass the point of no return. The point is not quite visible, and you pass it while you’re not paying attention. Perhaps you are merely too tired and dulled of mind to resist. Perhaps it is a kindly adaptive inheritance that our long-ago ancestors have given us.
But, if it leaves you not dead but jailed in a nightmare of forgetting and fear, lost and paranoid in your own body, what possible use is it? Why can’t your body die and be done with it?
I still have moments when I scare myself enough to push past the lethargy and reenter my plan, and maybe I will one night in truth walk out. But it seems less and less probable.
This morning as always John sits opposite me. He is smiling.
“Ralph, did I ever tell you about the Waltzing Waters?”
“Yes you have, John. More than once. Tell me again.”
“Absolutely beautiful. Colored jets of water. Rising and falling, like—,like—”
“Geysers, yes. Rising and falling with the music.”
“Let me tell you something about that, John.”
His expression is genuinely expectant. I experience my familiar reluctance before what I consider a necessary cruelty. This is part of what I see as my job, to remind John of the fact of his repetitions, to show him again the edge of his illness, to not treat him like the poor demented man he has become.
“I was there, John. I saw the Waltzing Waters. They are in Scotland. We flew across the ocean, to Scotland.”
“Yes, I was with you. We were with you, Sally and I, we went along with you and Murial.”
“The Waltzing Waters.”
“To the Waltzing Waters?”
“John, I have to tell you, I didn’t like it.”
“The music was awful. Like Lawrence Welk.”
“Murial was fond of Lawrence Welk.”
“Yes, you both liked him.”
“Welk. The Waltzing Waters.”
“Sally liked it.”
“Sally said I like it.”
“What did she like?”
“What I did.”
“What was that?”
“What you did. To Sally.”
“What about her?”
“You devious prick, you’re not senile.”
“Who said I was senile?”
“John—listen to me. Concentrate. I screwed Murial, your wife, three, four times a week. Any time I wanted.”
He doesn’t answer. He stares over my head at the wall. Then he pushes his chair back and stands up, saying, “What’s it doing outdoors? Not raining again, I hope.”
“John,” I say loudly. “Look at me. Answer me.”
Nothing. He is walking to the window, that old man’s walk, timid and hunched.
I get up and go out, I walk to the bridge, cross it, go into the woods and sit on a rock. I smoke five cigarettes. I’m late for lunch because I’ve been coughing so bad.
“Hilary, I felt I wanted to kill him. I know I’m wrong. It’s all just craziness. Senility. Even if they did screw—”
“I seriously doubt it, Ralph.”
“So do I. But I still can’t stand it.”
“Who knows, Ralph. Who knows. But I understand it hurts.”
“I hate this goddamned life.”
“I need a smoke.”
In the small bathroom I share with Rufus Peletier, my dentures in the little plastic hinged box on the stand next to the sink. In a pale blue solution that I prepare by dropping a fat pill into water. Just my uppers. Grinning teeth. Reminds me of a skull.
When you go into one of these “homes” you must divest yourself of many things. I sold the house, I even sold my piano. I had to give away to charity shops the toys of Ralph Jr. we’d kept. I’ve got some of my old LPs in here, though I can’t play them, and I’ve got a shelf of CDs and a small stereo with earphones. Bill Evans and Bird, Bix Beiderbecke, Kenny Drew with Dexter Gordon, Glenn Gould playing Bach. Chopin Preludes played by that young Russian with the frizzy hair.
It’s a thinning-out, preparing for the end. I’m not going to get better and walk out of here a new man. Most likely I’ll leave in a zipped-up bag on my way to the oven, the flames. Like the cold ovens in the photographs of Auschwitz, only not cold. Little glass pane in the door so the guy who works the burning can see how you’re coming along.
Jesus, Ralph. Lift yourself, man, take an interest. You’re not dead yet. Look out and breathe, go find your friend John.
“John—you were telling me about the Waltzing Waters. You said ‘Sally liked it.’ What did she like?
For some bizarre reason I make myself cough. Immediately I regret it. By the time I get it under control, gasping, breathing shallowly, I am thinking about what I’ll play on the piano tonight. “Sweet Lorraine.” I never got to “Sweet Lorraine” last night as I’d intended. I played “At the Dark End of the Street,” I ended with it. I don’t know that tune well at all. I improvised part of the melody.
“Ralph, your cough scares me.”
“You can’t breathe.”
“I can. It just takes a little while. John—tell me you love me. Tell me, old buddy.”
“I love you.”
“John, I’m dying.”
“When I die, I’ll leave you. I am sorry, John. I’ve gone too far now, I can’t stop. I can’t quit the smoking. And even if I could— ”
“Please don’t die, Ralph.”
“I get afraid, John.”
“I like it when you play the piano.”
Eric responded to my description of the ceiling stains by offering to walk back with me and have a look. The guy he’d been playing music with, a thin laconic character named Slim who I later got to know and like, had been just about to leave.
“Must be a rain leak,” Eric said as we walked. He was slightly overweight with an underwashed T-shirt over a modest belly, and he spoke slowly. I took a liking to him right away because he showed a rare quality: interest in the person he was talking to. Also he had a sense of humor.
On that first day a bit of trouble awaited. Sally’d been working in the beauty parlor, doing the hair of three neighborhood women. Jo-Jo, our cocker spaniel, was asleep on the front steps and she barked at Eric and he reached down and scratched her behind the ears. As Eric and I entered the house Zelda Winger came in a rush from the beauty parlor with her eyebrows raised, whispering loudly, “She’s in a bad way, Ralph.” Sally had overdone on the vodka. Like a lot of alcoholics she knew perfectly well that another person, especially one whose hair you are working on, can smell vodka on the breath, but she drank it anyway, even though ordinarily she preferred whiskey. Sally had passed out on a chair. I picked her up, carried her upstairs and put her on the bed, then I came down and apologized to the women. Awful as it was, during that period it’d become fairly routine. Eric acted not at all surprised. At the time I thought that maybe he’d had a wife who was a lush, but that wasn’t the case. It was simply that it took a lot to shock him, and moreover he saw some humor in the situation.
Eric liked to fish at Straw’s Pond, about a half mile from his bungalow in the woods east of White Avenue. A local veterinarian had years earlier bought the small weedy pond and some surrounding woods as a place where his wheelchair-bound wife could safely enjoy the beauties of nature. I don’t know why that plan did not work, but the pond was a favorite spot for neighborhood kids, and Ralph Jr. spent many hours there as he was growing up. In winter the pond froze and was great for ice skating, and in summer the kids killed frogs and snakes and anything else that moved. It had been pretty much fished out for years. Eric would sit in a folding chair on the shore with a cheap spinning reel and a daredevil lure and cast out and slowly reel in. He would do this over and over and mostly he hooked lily pads, but every so often he’d catch a small bullhead, which he would carefully remove and throw back. I got in the habit of accompanying him on warm Sundays. I’d bring my folding chair and we would sit talking.
I miss Eric. I admit that sometimes I wish he were in here with me and that John was dead. I admit also that sometimes I wish it was me that was dead. “I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow”— that’s something you hear amongst us inmates. For someone with emphysema I am pretty healthy, I can usually walk without a cane. But health is relative, and by eighty-seven, even without a main disease you’ve become a bag of bones, a sack half full of fluids going rancid. A tooth can fall out while you’re eating mashed potatoes.
Last night I played one of Sally’s songs, “Goodnight Irene.” I put some heart into it. No reaction from John. He sat there as he often does with music, staring at the thermostat. I ended with a blues in G. Nobody seemed to be listening. I nearly broke the keys. I nearly broke my fingers
The supper table. I’m home from work. Sally is sober. Ralph, Jr. is in the fourth grade and his passion is baseball. I’ve bought him a new glove, an expensive Spalding. He is in his first year of Little League and he already plays shortstop. He has placed the glove, smelling of leather, next to his plate. He keeps looking at it as he eats.
Sally and I, looking at each other and smiling.
“Ralph. Good morning. Sleep well?”
“Oh yes. How about you, old pal?”
“Yes. Now I’m having a cup of coffee.”
“Decaf I hope?”
“That’s what Murial drank.”
“Listen, John. Let’s go for a walk today. Get some air. We haven’t done a real walk in weeks.”
Watching him, as we approach the river, I am struck by how slowly he walks. This makes me aware of how slowly we both walk. Two old men. We’ve each brought a cane today, an acknowledgement that this journey will be slightly longer than normal. I went to John’s room and insisted he bring his. Of course by then he’d forgotten the plan.
On the bridge I pause. “Sniff the air, John? Indian summer. Even an old smoker like me can smell the warmth.”
“Very nice. Very nice.”
Often when he is absorbed I study him. He is beautiful. So youthful, trim, balanced; thin but not gaunt, skin healthily colored. His eyebrows are pale grey and fine-spun, and he has a full set of teeth with only one small gold filling when he smiles. I attribute his condition to a lack of stress—the regulated pace and security of the IBM office and the hours spent in his home basement working on the model trains. And the garden in the back yard with its flowers and delicious tomatoes. Weekly Methodist sermons gave Murial and John an orderly outlook. Their son Bob was an ace pitcher in Little League who threw an almost unhittable curve ball.
“Nice design, John, this footbridge. These cables, they’re catenary curves. There’s an equation for that curve.”
With John, I never have to worry how many times I’ve told him something.
“Lovely,” he answers, with a look of worry. “Long way down.”
Maybe he’s thinking I could push him off. I could, and I’ve thought of it. At some point in the future I might consider it an act of love, and hang the consequences. If I were in his shoes that might be what I’d want. I don’t think drowning would be so bad, especially if you got knocked out by the impact.
I am suppressing a mighty urge to smoke, resisting because I don’t want to cough. But suddenly the cough grabs me—
It’s the feeling that I can’t exhale that scares me most.
John looks annoyed, then worried.
“That’s a bad cough, Ralph.”
“Jesus it. Hurts. Can’t fucking. Breathe—”
“I remember once Murial said—”
“Please. Shut up. John. Trying to. Fucking. Breathe.”
Eventually I get it under control. Sweating. Holding tight to the handrail.
“Your cough sounds like trouble, Ralph.”
“It is trouble.”
It takes a while for me to calm. Again comes the need to smoke. Again I resist. We walk slowly, canes tapping wood, then jabbing the soft earth, on into the woods. We go the long way and coming back downstream we sit on a bench, the new memorial to Don Trowbridge. Nice oak bench with a stainless steel rectangle giving Don’s dates.
“Nobody’s going to pay for one of these for you or me, John.”
“She is. John—look at me. No, I mean right at me, my eyes. That’s it.”
“What is it, Ralph?”
“John, talk to me. Are you there? Are you in there, inside that old head I look at? Do you remember who I am?”
“You’re Ralph, my friend.”
“Do you remember your son’s name?”
“No. Ralph, Jr. is my son. He’s dead. Your son is Bob.”
“Alive. He’s an accountant in Baltimore. You have four grandchildren.”
“Murial is my wife. We went to Scotland. Did I ever tell you—”
“Yes. The Waltzing Waters.”
“Ralph, why did Sally die?”
“She got cancer.”
“Sally was an alcoholic. I liked her.”
“So did I.”
“She fell on the stairs. She was drunk.”
“Did you push her?”
“No, I did not push her. What makes you say that?”
“Sally didn’t like it.”
“What she didn’t like.”
“What was that?”
“I want to go back, Ralph. I’m getting chilly. It’s very nice out here but I’m cold.”
“What about Sally?”
“What about her?”
“You said— oh, the hell with it. Sometimes you puzzle the hell out of me, John.”
“Sometimes I puzzle the hell out of me.”
So seldom I think of my mother. Eleanor. I disappointed her and she didn’t live long enough to see that I was okay. She was in her sister’s house, Betty and Frank’s, dying as everyone does, of cancer, the big swelling she’d kept secret. I wasn’t there when she died, I came to visit her and Frank met me at the door.
“Your mother has passed.”
That stillness of the human form. I’ve seen it too many times now. That person, that body, will not move. Not a thirty-second of an inch, not the breadth of a hair. Watch the chest, wait for it to rise, it won’t.
There came a day when I stood looking down on the grass of my son’s grave, and next to it Sally’s coffin poised upon the straps of the lowering device. A muggy overcast day in June, small flies annoying us few mourners. The shine of veneered wood, cheap handles. You don’t need well-made solid handles, they’d be a waste of money. Sally’s open grave contained a concrete liner into which her coffin was about to be lowered. A legal requirement. Ralph, Jr. had one too. The dead don’t mix with the dirt. It makes it easy if ever the body has to be brought up. Therein lies one of my worst dreads: a cold concrete box. A crudely poured concrete box with a concrete lid.
The night Ralph, Jr. fell ill while camping with the Boy Scouts. Al Sperry, the scoutmaster, drove him home from High Rock Park in Beacon Falls. Our boy, coming through the front door holding his pack, pale and in tears.
“Mom,” he said. “Mom.”
He’d been sitting at the camp fire, it was the part of scouting he loved best, the camp fires, and he’d begun to feel sick. He’d walked back into the darkness and thrown up. I remember the feel of him, how after he’d hugged Sally he hugged me. His hot forehead. Smell of wood smoke in his hair.
The tiredness began in my sixties. I recall that by sixty-seven it was far advanced, and each year it has come on more, so that makes twenty years of increase. And people wonder why we oldsters shuffle and pause and fall down. There are men and women in their nineties who climb mountains but I no longer accept even implicit boasts about their disciplined fitness. I ascribe their achievements to luck, unusual inheritance of body. If they keep the body going with push-ups and electric treadmills, that’s impressive and I admire it, but the underlying basis of what’s holding them together is luck.
I am getting so I’m no longer sure what’s worth complaining about. This morning it’s the sound of a gasoline engine that began out on the road at five minutes past six. A fairly high-rev engine, probably powering an electric generator. Men have been at work out there for over a week now, and I have watched them every day as they’ve dug a long trench using what we as kids called a steam shovel, but even then was not powered by steam. The youngster running this one doesn’t push heavy clutches and shove long levers sticking up from the floor, and thick cables don’t tighten and go slack opening and slamming a hinging steel jaw. He wears sound-suppressing earphones and he works a few small rubber-knobbed handles, controlling a hinged hydraulic prosthetic arm.
The hired man, Donald, he ate with us, as if a member of the family. The hay-fork tine stuck into his leg. I threw up.
I was a lonesome little guy, with my imaginary friends. Judy the girl who sat with me in the tree hut, I could tell her anything.
And my real friend Tony, he matured so early, showing me his long uncircumcised penis in the hay mow. He was Italian, Mom explained that Italians were “emotional.” Tony’s mom screamed at Tony’s dad.
Tony talking about Jack, our bull—”when he gets his red pencil out, starts doing his job.”
It feels good said Tony, showing how he made it hard, pumping with his hand, the white stuff rising up out of the tip. Tony made a noise.
Sally made a noise.
I made a noise.
We made Ralph, Jr.
What was that girl’s name, the first one I kissed? Coming in my pants. In her barn, hot afternoon, the feeling spreading. And that awful unexpected guilt.
There goes Billy the janitor down the hall, pushing the dust mop, moving like a slug. Avoidance his specialty, his talent. Yet somehow his smelly bathrooms pass state inspection.
“Hilary, I’m eighty-seven and I could do his job better.”
“Sometimes I do believe you could, Ralph.”
“Fire the asshole.”
“The asshole is reliable and has seniority.”
“Seniority. Jesus H. Christ. In an old folks home. He’s probably the youngest person in here.”
She laughs. “I’m the youngest person here, Ralph.”
Sally, long before we were married, in a faded pale green dress sitting in an old armchair in that ratty apartment in New Haven we’d borrowed for a week. Behind her the window, sunlight coming through the dusty white curtains. Sally, wearing that dress with nothing underneath.
An old man with a useless dick, feeling horny.
I’m waiting for John—an absurd thing to do, as he’s just said, “Be right back, Ralph, going to get a sweater,” and walked off down the hall. We’re supposed to be going to the river. Before he’s out of sight I know he’s forgotten.
Alma comes down the hall, pushing her “trike,” a walker with three wheels.
She pauses next to me, gripping both brakes.
The straight set of her mouth gives the false impression that she is angry and possibly mean-tempered. It’s a look caused by ill-fitting dentures. A better indicator of her kindly nature is the soft skin of her face with its shallow delicate wrinkles. That and her fine-spun carefully permed light blue hair.
“Are you going out for a walk, Ralph?”
“Yes, Alma. I’m waiting for John. But I think he’s forgotten.”
“John is a bit forgetful.”
“But he is very good-looking.”
I’m struck with surprise. Alma is blushing.
To ease her embarrassment I say, “I hope it doesn’t rain. It looks like it might.”
“Fred Pope said it will. He checks the short wave every hour. You’d better get your raincoat.”
“Yes. First I’d better get John.”
“Have a good walk, the two of you.”
I say goodbye and go after John. He’s in his room reading one of his old worn copies of Popular Mechanics.
As we set off along the path I say, “John, I think Alma has a crush on you.”
“She just told me you’re good-looking. And she blushed.”
There is a pause during which our shoes crunch on some fallen leaves. Just when I’m sure he’s not going to comment, he says, “Why didn’t she say that thirty years ago.”
“You didn’t know her thirty years ago.”
“Wish I had.”
He still surprises me, even now. To imagine him, in the old days, in his blue IBM suit, saying such a thing.
“John, listen to me. You’ve been going on about Sally. Sally this, Sally that. What’s up?”
“Sally fixed women’s hair, Ralph. Murial and I moved onto the street first. Our house cost seven thou—”
“Were you and Sally fucking?”
His mouth open for a second or so in shocked surprise and consternation. He looks at the ground. Long silence lengthening.
I was sitting by myself in the rec room having an afternoon coffee instead of a nap when Hilary joined me. She’d come to get me to sign a renewal for my pension deposits.
“Ralph, you say you fear dementia and you talk about it a lot. So why seek it out? You know there are quite few people in here who are sharp. Like yourself. Look at Beth Lauer, she reads history books. She’s got a whole shelf of them. And David Perkins with his clock repairs. And people like Anna Mocosia, people who talk straight and remember and have a sense of humor. The residents who take an interest. Why aren’t you pals with them? Why spend so much time with John and Dutch? Or sitting staring at Meta?
“Maybe I’m interested in what I’m afraid of. And John’s my friend. I’m looking out for him.”
“Okay, but it wouldn’t hurt to talk once in a while with someone who knows where they were yesterday.”
“I talk with you.”
“I’m just one. Frank Salcito could use a friend.”
So I went to see Frank. I spent almost an hour in his room. He has a collection of old road maps. He got out a 1947 Triple A guide, with a red-penciled line from Hartford to St. Petersburg, Florida, and he talked me through the whole trip. It was a drive he and his wife made in the days before thruways.
I enjoyed the visit. We liked each other. He says he’s going to come hear me play piano tonight.
It disturbed me a little to realize as I left his room that right away I wanted to go find John. I told myself that I needed to make sure he was all right. But the truth was I missed his company.
I found John and Dutch in the rec room, watching TV bowling.
“Say, boys,” I said. “I need a smoke. Let’s go.”
They got up and followed me like I was the scoutmaster. Of course we went to the river. We were all three feeling spry and after crossing the bridge we took a detour and climbed the hill that overlooks the Manor. Standing there I felt a strange peace. The visit with Frank had reassured me that I was yet a part of the normal world. I was pleased and expectant at the prospect of his coming to hear me play. Of course he’d already heard me, but now he was possibly coming with an enhanced interest and might listen.
Yet I realized that that was all I wanted—for him to listen. I didn’t actually want to be friends with him. I knew in the end I’d find his maps boring.
I smoked two cigarettes and had a cough and John and Dutch and I talked. I say “talked” but actually what happened was that Dutch described lifting two crime scene prints left by Coldchester’s most famous criminal, the Mad Bomber, a story I’d heard at least a hundred times.
John sighed, looking upwards. After what seemed careful consideration he said, “Those clouds are moving slowly.”
“Never heard you point that out before,” Dutch said.
“Sally liked clouds.”
“Clouds?” I kept my voice calm, neutral.
A woodpecker hammered at a distant tree.
I held back. I decided to see if anything more would be revealed without my speaking.
Both John and Dutch seemed to be studying the ground. I began to feel the two of them were waiting for me to speak, and this made me suspect—again—that John might in some strange fashion be pulling the wool over my eyes.
I decided to keep quiet. I’d taken a cigarette from my pack but I replaced it unlit and said, “Let’s go, boys. It’ll be supper soon.”
Later that evening, when I was saying goodnight to John, I said, “John, this afternoon I heard you mention Sally. It was on our walk. You’d been talking about clouds.”
His look of confusion was genuine.
“Good night, Ralph.”
Let it go, they say into the ear of the dying. As they are saying on the floor above into the ear of Meta Bunker. Meta, prone on her bed, wordless, eyes closed, her skin nearly transparent over her bony knuckles. Over her eyeballs.
I went to say goodbye.
Thinking: did you like it when I played the piano? Because I never knew. And now I’ll never know.
The woman from the hospice, carefully applying a wet cloth to Meta’s dry mouth.
Hilary says that by tomorrow at the latest Meta will “have passed.”
Meta’s room will be empty. An “opening.” A phone call to the next on the waiting list.
I never knew why Sally did it just then. After those early years when she was so crazy, unpredictable, when long before marriage, before even the long separation when I’d said I’ve had enough, when I walked away and if she phoned I’d hang up, the seventeen solitary months when I read books and played piano and concentrated on forgetting her. Finally we drew back together, I could no longer resist her, and to my amazement it was as if she had genuinely changed.
Years then, marriage, my job at the wire factory, renting the house we would eventually buy. Sally calm in the hospital, the last far bed in the nearly empty ward, little Ralph at her breast and then me singing to him, carrying him into the empty waiting room late at night where I kneeled before the lighted fish tank, little Ralph’s eyes wide as if already he could focus, holding him, his smallness, thinking: he’s only just arrived from heaven’s clean warm chamber.
Years go by, and of a sudden she fucks this guy, this young perfect-skinned Portuguese kid from Beacon Falls, she comes home smelling of him and half drunk, and she tells me about it. Tells me exactly what she’s done. In detail. Little Ralph has by then almost learned to walk, he’s on the verge of taking his steps, I am sitting on the couch holding him, having kept him up late, just having read to him, the book with the picture of Tommy Tiger open in my lap, I’m waiting, scared, fearing it’s the cops coming to the door going to tell me she’s dead in a car crash but immediately I know it’s her footsteps and she walks in, smiling that awful in-your-face desperate grin, and she tells me with her voice quiet how they both had their clothes off in the front seat of the car.
I think that’s what messed up Ralph, Jr. By first messing up me. Yet for Sally it was over with. It left me forever scared and not trusting, but in fact from then on I think she never came close to doing such a thing again. And we went on. I became janitor and we built the little addition where she did women’s hair and our only child moved through his levels of childhood. And then during Ralph, Jr.’s adolescence something went askew. Between him and me. Not with Sally, he kept loving Sally. Me. He turned against me. He told me he hated me.
I generally sleep for about two hours, then wake and pass the remainder of the night in a troubled state. Memories come to me, often distant ones. This morning about four o’clock I began recalling a train ride I took one summer when I was young and single, before I met Sally. For several months I’d been working for a man named Marshall, putting in asphalt driveways. It was a fairly new thing in Millville then, and we were getting a lot of work in the rich section along South Street. Marshall was small and muscular and mean, completely humorless, and all day we dug out old driveways by hand and then I wheelbarrowed the hot asphalt from the truck and Marshall raked it out smooth, ready to be rolled. One Friday when he’d been especially nasty all day, just after he’d handed me my pay envelope, I quit. He was dumbstruck, which added to the pleasure. I withdrew my savings from the bank, about a hundred bucks, and I bought a round trip ticket to New Mexico. There was a cousin out there I hadn’t seen in years. I caught a train in Coldchester—that was when trains came through Coldchester—and I made several changes to Chicago, where I began a single long passage to Albuquerque. I bought a bag of food and all day I sat watching the landscape. This was the part of the trip I most enjoyed, the part I most remember. In New Mexico I found that my cousin had married a man who disliked me and to my surprise I didn’t much care for the dry desert heat. I visited some interesting Indian ruins but was glad to get back on the train to New England. I remember the intense pleasure not only of watching the changing land and sky, but also the feel of the steam train tunnelling through the long western night. I slept in my seat and from time to time to get my blood circulating I walked the length of the train and I would pause between the cars and stand looking out into the dark, relishing the crashing loudness, the regular bangs as the steel wheels rolled over the rail joints. Peering into the dark was spooky, as if the randomly spaced lights, the houses, farms, small towns, were all moving on a big invisible disc. It was like one of those photographs of a galaxy in space, and I was riding on one of the lights.
But wait: the particular photograph I am thinking of was taken by the Hubble telescope, decades later. And also this: I remember my cousin as being single, I felt myself falling in love with her. But also I remember her as married, with a baby.
Were there two trips or one?
By browsing in junk shops Hilary has collected a small library of VHS tapes. On Wednesday nights after I play piano we have a showing. Attendance is pretty good, even for movies we’ve seen numerous times. John and I both like Westerns. We have an odd susceptibility to them, and the next day after watching one there will be very slight modifications in the way we walk and talk, a temporary presence in our movements of the lone gunfighter. I think this is true for many men of our generation. I find it odd that John, who normally forgets everything almost immediately, retains at least the feel of a cowboy film after a full night’s sleep.
Last night we watched a movie that Hilary had just bought, “The Outlaw Josie Wales.” I am a fan of Clint Eastwood because he plays very good jazz piano and his first car was a ‘32 Chevy coupe. My first car was a ‘32 Chevy, although not a coupe.
John almost never wakes in the morning before I do, in fact he sometimes oversleeps and I have to bang on his door so he gets up for breakfast. But this morning I woke about six with John standing next to my bed fully dressed, looking down at me and holding an invisible pistol in his right hand, pointing it at my chest, grinning.
“Jesus Christ, John, have you gone nuts?”
“Ralph. Keep your hands where I can see them. I want you to ease out of bed real slow.”
“John, listen to me. You see that rise in the blanket down there between my legs? It’s not my dick. It’s a .44 colt. Okay? And it’s aimed at your heart. So drop the gun and step back and reach.”
This did the trick. He seemed to believe that I in fact had the drop on him, and I swung my legs out of bed. He stepped back, raising both hands.
“Have a seat John.” I put my invisible pistol on the night table. “I guess you liked the movie, eh?”
“I had the drop on you, Ralph.”
“You did, John, you did. But you should have shot me before I woke up. Your mistake was to show mercy.”
There are janitorial tricks, things you might want to pass on if you were teaching the trade in a school. There’s this special material for when a kid barfs. It comes in a yellow can and it’s called Cleanit. You spread it by hand on the vomit and it soaks it up and covers the smell.
You have to be careful not to eye the girls with their budding breasts. I used to catch myself staring and I’d quickly look away, wondering how long I’d been doing it. There was a particularly lovely girl who blossomed in the seventh grade named Marilyn Wilcome and her homeroom teacher, Simon Orwell, had an uncontrollable crush on her. It was embarrassing to see the two of them together and finally Mal Letts had to give Simon a warning.
John is late for lunch so I knock on his door, figuring he’s asleep.
“Hello!” from behind the door.
“John, it’s lunch time.”
“Yeah. Come in, Ralph.”
He’s lying on his back naked, right hand grasping his hard-on.
“Jesus, John—” I close the door behind me.
“Ralph. C’mon in. I’ll only be a minute.”
“John, for Christ’s sake, it’s lunch time. Put your pants on.”
“What’ll I do with this?”
Amazing size of his dick. I’d never seen it before. Thoughts of Murial.
“Let it go, John. You won’t need it at lunch.”
Quietly, as if to himself: “Sally.”
A sharp nauseating coldness in my stomach.
“What about Sally?”
“I think she’s dead.”
“You crazy fuck. I’m going to lunch.”
I slam the door.
Twenty minutes later he joins Dutch and me at the table.
“I hope you washed your hands,” I say.
When five new classrooms were added to Memorial School Mal hired Leon. Mal was three years away from retiring and five years away from being dead, and I think those factors had some bearing on his strange choice of an assistant for me. Why did someone so unimaginative and so tightly constrained as Mal hire a Black reformed alcoholic Jehovah’s Witness with a mere six months’ janitorial experience? Leon had smooth brown skin with dark circles under his eyes and a thin tightly cut blackmustache and white teeth, and he smelled of Old Spice.
Yet, somewhat amazingly, he proved an excellent choice. He took to janitoring with flair, learning fast, and there was no job too dirty or demeaning. The kids loved him and every year at the talent show I backed him up on piano as he sang “Old Man River.”
Leon and I became friends, in spite of a rough beginning during which he was determined to convert me. We argued and argued and I simmered on the verge of telling Mal to fire this fucking crackpot. But somehow Leon and I got a grip on the situation, we both wanted our jobs and we agreed to shut our yaps and stick to the matter at hand, janitoring. I reminded him that I was the boss and like it or not I was an atheist and he said okay, and then surprisingly we began to get along. Eventually we got close enough to help each other over some of our respective rough times. His daughter began screwing around, driving Leon and his wife to distraction, the girl would go off with some idiot and come back days later spaced out from drugs. And when Ralph, Jr. died, that was the test. Leon put his arms around me and he cried. I knew he was praying hard for Sally and me but he never said so.
One day after he’d been at the job about two years Leon made a startling confession: he was homosexual. He had never told anyone, including his wife Justina. He had fathered two children and for 32 years he had been able to pleasure Justina without her ever suspecting. But he had had experiences with men and although they were few and brief, he was convinced they manifested his true nature, and this meant he was bound for hell. The afternoon when he confessed this to me, behind closed doors in the boiler room, in whispers, I was so shocked that my first reaction was to physically move several inches away from him. I actually pushed my chair away anticipating that he was about to say he desired me. At that time I was still prejudiced against gays, I still felt the revulsion I’d grown up with. But it wasn’t me he wanted. It was someone he’d met at Donati’s Pool Hall in Coldchester.
“I love this man, Ralph. It’s crazy, it’s disgusting, I was only with him once, but I love him. If he walked into this boilerroom right now I would have no power over myself. I feel like I’m insane. Maybe I am. I know this much, Ralph: I am a locked-in sinner.”
He had a habit of jiggling his left leg when he was excited or nervous, and as he spoke the leg was trembling so that he had to hold it with both hands. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Ralph, on the day of judgement Jesus is going to tear me from my place alongside Felicia and fling me into the pit.”
I couldn’t find much to say. I suggested that maybe he was in fact bisexual.
“I’d know if I was. And that’d only make it worse.”
He was afraid that I was going to expose him to Mal. I said I absolutely wouldn’t do that.
“I have to trust you, Ralph. Please, please, I beg of you. Don’t tell anyone. It’ll be the end.”
“I won’t tell, Leon. I promise you. I will not tell.”
And I didn’t. I intended to tell Sally but by the time I got home from work that night I knew I wouldn’t.
Leon came to visit me here at the Manor four months after I arrived. We hadn’t been in touch since I’d retired, and I thought he was afraid of running into me outside of the job because it would remind him of the power I possessed. But one Saturday he drove up from Coldchester and we talked for over an hour. We shared some laughs and memories and only at the very last did he thank me for “keeping the secret.” This time it was me with tears in my eyes. I hugged him goodbye. I felt then that I might not see him again, and about a year later I got a letter from Felicia saying that he had been diagnosed with diabetes and had had a leg amputated. Six months later he was dead. Felicia asked me to play piano at the funeral but I was ill at the time and I had to say no.
As we’re eating lunch today, sitting at our table near the window, John suddenly puts his soup spoon down and says, “Boys—”
Dutch and I look at him. He is grinning.
“Yes?” I say. “What is it, John?”
“I did not have sex with that woman.”
Dutch and I wait for more. John is no longer grinning. We watch as he picks up his spoon and finishes his soup.
“Is that it?” Dutch says.
“What woman, John?”
Just now I asked myself, did I meet Eric before or after Sally died?
How could such a question make sense? That I could puzzle over such a fact when the fact is like part of the bedrock on which the landscape rests.
Yes, Eric was there, in the world, mortal, to die ahead of me. Alive and already my friend when Sally died.
I walked up Yale Avenue, turned left onto Goff, to White Avenue, the yards of the houses of the years in a static sharpness somehow distant. Knowing suddenly that old age had begun, actual, not just me thinking about it. To Eric’s door saying, “Eric, my wife has died.” And Eric standing in the doorway in his paunched T-shirt and accordion-bottom’d dungarees. Beyond him in the house the banjo on the table, the shine of it in the dimness.
“Come on in, Ralph. C’mon, sit down.”
Sitting in Eric’s chair. Crying. Suddenly, crying hard.
The banjo, the Gibson, lying on the table, shining.
Eric, bringing me a glass of whiskey.
I am dozing when Hilary knocks. She comes in and tells me I have a visitor. I sit on the edge of my bed, allowing my mind to clear, and she looks at me gravely, causing me to think: uh-oh. What is about to happen? Who on the outside world is left to die?
“Ralph, it’s someone who knew your son. A man.”
My old heart hammering. Sweat in my armpits. I almost don’t want to see this person, whoever he is. But I say yes, and after a few minutes, after I’m up and have washed my face with cold water, in he comes.
His name is Byron Darnell and he has a long face, a kind face. He is cautious, not sure how demented I am, although I am certain Hilary has assured him I am okay. I would love to know exactly what she has said. We shake hands and I sit in my armchair and he sits on the wooden straight-backed visitor’s chair and he tells me at once that he is the person who went off the cliff in the car with Ralph, Jr. My first reaction is shock at how old he looks.
“Are you the same age as my son? That is, as my son would be?”
“Yes. I’m forty-seven.”
It takes a few seconds before I notice the asymmetry of his body: a slant to his shoulders and the odd angle of his left leg.
I start to cry. I am slammed yet again, after all these years, by the awfulness of life’s possibilities, two kids in a car not meaning any harm, going just fast enough to trespass for a few seconds beyond traction, and off they go into the air and my son is dead.
Watching me, Byron gets tears in his eyes and he stands and puts a hand on my shoulder. He means it as a gesture of tenderness but I make a very small move as if to pull away.
“I’m sorry I’ve upset you.”
“Who are you? I thought you were dead.”
“I’m the person who was in the car with Ralph. I didn’t die.”
“Well, that’s interesting.”
“Could I have a glass of water? Maybe I could get you one.”
I say to myself: calm down. He takes the glass off my bedside table and at my suggestion he gets the other one from the shelf and he rinses them out in the bathroom and fills them with water. I like the clothes he is wearing, loose fitting dungarees and a grey cotton shirt. To me forty-seven is young, but he looks like he’s done a lot of mileage, he’s got loose skin and he’s paunchy with large bags under his eyes. He says he works in an office in San Francisco and he is gay.
“But Ralph, Jr. wasn’t,” he adds, not looking at me.
“I wouldn’t mind if he was. I’m not prejudiced.”
“I didn’t think you were. I just thought you’d want to know.”
“Thank you. You understand, I am sent reeling by this. I believed you were dead.”
“So did everybody. I was extremely damaged. My heart stopped and they figured I was dead. For fifty-eight seconds. I guess I was taking a breather, sort of trying out death. Eventually I opened my eyes and there I was, back in the world. Ralph, I am very sorry I never contacted you. It was stupid.”
“Why now after twenty years? Why the rush?”
“I can’t explain what I did. After I learned that Ralph was dead, I didn’t want to see you. That’s just how I felt. That’s all I can say. I knew he was driving too fast and I should have stopped him.”
“I got pretty crazy myself. We came back east with Ralph, Jr.’s body, and we assumed you were a goner. Probably dead already. That’s what they told us. We felt bad, we felt we should have stuck around. We were arguing. My wife started boozing. Awful.”
“There would’ve been no point. I didn’t talk for a month.”
“But my wife phoned the hospital. Someone said you were dead. How could that possibly happen?”
“I don’t know. I wondered why I never heard from you. But that’s no excuse.”
“Well—I’m glad you’re alive. And it’s good to meet you, Byron.”
“Maybe Sally heard it wrong on the phone. Maybe she was drunk. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”
“I shouldn’t have said that about Ralph not being gay. When I’m nervous I blurt things out. Actually I’m not sure. He didn’t live long enough to find out. He was pretty messed up. We were both messed up. I guess we were messed up together. I still am, at least sometimes. But I finally came to see you. I’ve had a job offer in Boston. I don’t even want the job, but here I am.”
I liked him. I didn’t trust him completely, but there was something about him that made me want to know more, not just about my son but about him.
He told me that for a long time after the accident he blamed himself for Ralph Junior’s death and he went off the rails. He boozed and he ended up homeless for three years. He’d done six months in jail for a theft he didn’t commit. Now he lived in a single room and he hadn’t had a drink in ten years.
We got on pretty well. We talked and I took him for a walk out to the bridge and then we sat on Don’s bench. I smoked and he got to see me coughing.
“Jesus, Ralph. That’s scary. Anything they can do about it?”
“No. Emphysema. I should quit. But I don’t.”
“I’m eighty-seven. How much longer do I have, anyway?”
“That’s a grim way to think, but I can see it. I quit the smokes quite a while back and I still miss it.”
“What’s this office work you do?”
“That was me trying to sound normal. Lying is a bad habit of mine and I should give it up. But I’ve been worried what you were going to think of me.”
“Otherwise you’re telling me the truth.”
He writes poetry. He makes no money at it and he isn’t famous. He doesn’t even claim to be a good poet. It’s just what he does. I liked that because it’s the way I’ve looked at my music. He does part-time jobs to pay the bills, and he lives without a health plan.
“I was a night watchman for quite a while. I gave it up and now I do office temping.”
“Byron—I have to tell you, I don’t care for poetry.”
“You and a lot of other people.”
“I haven’t read much poetry but I find it boring or completely obscure. Actually, that’s what people say about jazz. But with jazz I get it. Even though I never was good enough at it. But with poetry I think: what’s the point?”
“What’s the point of Bradley Manor Home for the Elderly?”
“It’s a functional solution.”
“So the problem is that poetry’s not a functional solution? Like jazz is a functional solution?”
Our conversation was the best I’d had in years and I kept it going as long as I could. We walked back and had coffee in the dining room. Somehow he managed to avoid telling me much about my son and about their friendship. I kept probing and he kept dodging and finally I got a little angry and asked him what’s up?
“The fact is I didn’t know him very well. We’d just met. He didn’t have many friends. In fact, I don’t know if he had any. At least close ones. He was taking a course in mathematics and he was printing photographs at a fancy nightclub. We met at Golden Gate Park. I was lying on the grass smoking a joint and he came by and looked at me and I offered him a hit on the joint. He sat down and we got pretty stoned and that was it, we liked each other. He wasn’t bothered when I told him I was gay. I think he had deeper problems. He didn’t seem interested in sex. A month later he was dead and I was barely alive.”
“Mathematics? Jesus H. Christ. Ralph Junior could barely do long division. What was with the nightclub?”
“It was The Fairmont, a big hotel at the top of the hill. They had a nightclub with women who went around to the tables offering to take your photograph. The woman would give the film to Ralph in the back room, he’d develop it fast, make a print, and she would take it out and sell it to the customer. Ralph had to time it right with the chemicals or the picture would start getting yellow before the people left the club.”
I was tiring but I didn’t want to stop talking. I could see he was also tiring and rather than let him leave I offered him my bed for a nap. He accepted. I went down the hall to visit John, but John was not in his room so I lay down on his bed. I dropped right off to sleep. Sometime later John woke me and when the supper bell sounded he and I went to my room and got Byron. He was lying on my bed reading one of my books. He agreed to stay for a meal.
Supper was interesting. Byron and I tried to talk, but John kept interrupting with confusing questions and he kept telling Byron about Murial giving up caffeine. Dutch was just then at the height of his obsession with Monica Lewinsky and the blowjobs. Byron grew quiet, but he seemed to be enjoying the craziness of my friends and he and I exchanged complicit glances. I began to feel like he was an old pal, and I invited him to hear me play after supper in the rec room. He accepted, but he said that after that he had to go.
I thought I played well, but Byron wasn’t a jazz fan and although he said afterward that he’d enjoyed it, I didn’t think I reached him.
“I know very little about jazz, although I have a friend who listens to it. I love classical music.”
“Bach’s good. It’s like jazz piano.”
“What was that last tune you played?”
“‘At the Dark End of the Street.’ I don’t play it often. I can never remember it right. I learned it off one of Ralph Junior’s LPs, a guy named Rye Cooder played it on guitar.”
“Nice melody. I liked the way you did it.”
“Did you ever play in a band? Did you ever make money?”
“I tried. I played with other people quite a bit at first, and now and then over the years. But after a certain point I mainly just played on my own. I wasn’t good enough. Or as good as I wanted to be. It’s too much to go into now. I’m too tired and it’s a story I’m not proud of.”
“Too bad you can’t make it out to San Francisco, Ralph. We could hear some jazz together.”
“I’m past traveling, Byron. I’m in here for the duration. I’m not well and I’m old.”
“Yeah, that cough is bad.”
“That’s what John says. ‘That cough is bad, Ralph.’ I hear that every day.”
He laughed. “I like John. Although I see why he gets on your nerves. He’s beautiful. Such a sensitive face.”
“He worked for IBM. I hope you didn’t make a pass at him.”
“Not my type, Ralph.”
“He’s my best friend. We lived thirty-seven years across the street from one another but we didn’t become pals until we both moved here. I think he might have been screwing my wife.”
Suddenly we were back in the world of Ralph Junior and the mystery of what had happened between me and my son. Byron wasn’t much help. We sat for a while longer in my room and I tried to get him to reveal to me what Ralph Junior had really thought of me, why he’d said he hated me, why he left. Byron was evasive.
“You probably won’t believe me, Ralph, but I honestly do not know. He never told me he hated you. In fact he admired you, how you practiced the piano, how you read books, how smart you were. He laughed about you being a janitor all those years. He did say he hated going to school as a kid with you being the janitor, but I do not believe he hated you. He was a mystery, Ralph. He said he had discovered he loved mathematics even though he wasn’t good at it. I did not understand him.
“That’s not a lot to go on.”
“It’s about all I’ve got. I will try and think what else I can tell you. I know you want more. I know you think I’m hiding stuff. How about if I write you a letter.”
He had a rental car and he was going to stay somewhere between the Manor and Boston in a motel, and fly from Logan Airport back to San Francisco. He said he’d like to buy me a gift. Was there anything I wanted? I said I’d like a turntable to play my LPs. I showed him the turntable I’d brought from home.
“It gave up the ghost last year. I listen to CDs now on the little portable.”
“That’s an old Technics! I know that machine. I’ll get you a better one. I promise.”
He made a move as if to go to the door but something stopped him. He came back and sat down.
“I’ll tell you one more thing, okay? Then I must go.”
“When Ralph was a young adolescent, when he was old enough to take the bus into town on his own—Coldchester was it? There was a queer that used to hang around on the green. With others. I think he was sort of famous.”
“Yeah, I know who you mean.”
“To me he is some tortured simpatico of that awful time. Probably getting beat up. And maybe even getting to like it. Something happened between him and Ralph—”
“I don’t think it was much. I’m sure it wasn’t much. Eventually he would have told me. He wanted to. But he didn’t. He died.”
I said nothing. Byron had tears in his eyes, looking at me as if imploring me not to answer in the wrong way. I did not know what was the right way.
I thought: my son. Our son, out there in California on his own. Sally and I back here in the east. Why didn’t we go out there, go to him? What kind of selfish prick of a father was I?
I couldn’t talk, I began crying so. Byron stood and put his hand on my shoulder just as he had that morning.
“Ralph, this was not a big horrible thing. It would have been something he and I would laugh at some day. Don’t start blaming yourself. He’s gone. He didn’t hate you. He loved you.”
Nodding my head up and down.
“I’ll write that letter, Ralph.”
“Byron, thanks for coming. Good luck to you.”
I think there was more he could have told me and I think he had no intention of writing me a letter.
A month later a very handsome brand new Sony setup arrived, turntable, amp, speakers. Obviously he wasn’t so poor as he’d said. There was no letter, just a small pamphlet of poems. The title was Embarrassing Riches, and Byron had signed it, ‘To my friend Ralph the piano player from Byron the poet.’
I’ve never heard from him again.
After we’d said goodbye in my room I stood at the window at the end of the hall and watched as Byron started his rental car. When he turned the headlights on and the red tail lights seemed to swell slightly with a soft-edged brightness the way they sometimes do it caused a sadness to rise up in me and tears rolled down my cheeks. There must have been something I was reminded of but I couldn’t remember what. When he backed out of the visitor’s parking place I could tell the car had an automatic transmission, he paused in reverse gear with the white backup lights on, and he sat for a few seconds with his foot on the brake, perhaps arranging something on the seat or perhaps thinking he should pull forward and turn off the engine and come back inside and tell me something else. But he didn’t, and I watched as the backup lights switched off and he moved forward, turning left out of the parking lot.
It happened quickly. At first I was not going to tell anyone but I felt an oddness in my brain, sort of a buzzing, and in the fingers of my left hand a difficulty in moving. When I wiggled the fingers there was a distance, looking down on the fingers telling them to move, they weren’t obeying the way they should. Finally they did move but with an effort, it was like many years ago when I was first learning piano in the front room at the farm, fourteen years old, looking down and commanding the third finger to move and it did, all by itself and not dragging another finger with it, a small achievement. But this was not the same, this was a solitary struggle to keep something that I was losing.
Thinking: I’m losing the piano. Sweating with fear.
But it has come back. I still have it. A minor stroke, the doc says, but he is puzzled, why just the left hand in exactly that way. He is studying me, studying the scans. But I am able to play, I played last night and I will play tonight. In fact I am planning what I will play. “Blue Monk.” It’s simple but it’s difficult. It has to be improvised in a Monk-like way. No one will follow it but that’s all right. After that: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Doc Ianelo said, “The smoking doesn’t help, Ralph. You know that, don’t you.” Looking at me, kindly, his darkish face. He’s Italian but he looks like an Arab. Eyes black with tiny highlights. And I answered yes. And a half-hour later I was sitting leaning my back against a maple tree smoking. And coughing.
What has changed is now there’s an occasional juddered breakoff of thought or memory, oddity of connection, very hard to describe. Two senses colliding to make a memory surface. When the fingers were almost refusing to move there came to me a smell, so precise, so real, it was the smell of Sally after making love. A very exact memory—in the afternoon in our bedroom, a Sunday, little Ralph Junior napping in his crib. I let out a moan here alone in my room, a moan of pain that contained the awfulness of my fear of what’s coming. Plus the awfulness of the perishableness of the past.
“How many kill themselves?” I’ve asked Hilary.
“Very few.” She never wants to discuss it.
Today, standing on the bridge, I asked John: “You ever wonder about the end, John? How it’ll come? You think you’ll know when it steps into the room? Maybe there’s a certain feel.”
“Murial said help me.”
“When Sally was dying in the hospital, just at the end, I told her one last time that I loved her.”
“Sally.” He stares down at the water.
“What about her?”
He doesn’t answer. Time clicks by, three or four notches.
“What’re you thinking about, old pal?”
“The bulbs. I’ve got a box of bulbs in the cellar that should’ve been planted.”
Still he watches the water.
I light a cigarette.
Sally stands having filled the kitchen sink with soapy water, ready to wash the supper dishes, pausing looking out the window onto the back yard where yellow leaves have just begun to flutter from the elm trees. It is long before Dutch Elm Disease has killed every last elm on the street, before the bark fell off the smooth long trunks and we had our trees taken down.
I’m remembering this as John and I make our way along the river and out onto the bridge. As always we stop midway, lean on the railing and look downstream. It is a softly lit evening and there are yellow leaves floating on the water.
As we stand there in the quiet I say, “John, tell me—were you screwing her?”
I’m as surprised by the question as he is.
I don’t answer and he is not so far gone as to ask again.
“I thought I didn’t care,” I say. “But I guess I do. What’s the truth, John?”
Again silence. It stretches out, but then is followed by a sound. An unfamiliar sound as if John is trying to lift something that’s too heavy.
I turn and look at him and at first I assume that his gesture, the way he is bent forward with his mouth open, his look as if stricken, is his reaction to my question.
“John—you all right?”
But at once I see he is tipping forward. He seems unable to release his hands from the railing and drool is coming from his mouth.
I get to him, I am just able to grab the rear of his belt as he begins bending toward the water. I try to hold him but I do not have the strength. I brace my feet, stiffen my legs, I pull back on his belt as I yell “John!”, but the weakness of my body is such that I have no effect, his feet come up and over he goes, his belt slipping from my hand. There is a noiseless pause before the sound of his hitting forces a nausea into my mouth.
Below in the water blood is coming from John’s head and his wire rimmed glasses are still attached to his ears. Suddenly at the end of the bridge I see Dutch with his mouth open, he looks small and scared and I yell, “Go for help! Don’t just stand there, idiot! Get Hilary!” And as Dutch starts his old man’s run I stumble down the bank into the water.
A Methodist church. John’s son Bob has arranged it. John’s coffin, pale blue anodised metal on a chrome stand. Same color as Murial’s, years ago.
I step up to the podium. A polished hardwood podium, tightly jointed with chamfered edges. Where each Sunday morning the minister stands. I look out at the small gathering. In the front row, Bob and his wife and sons, and Hilary and Dutch, between them my empty chair.
“Friends. This morning I was awake early as usual, sitting at the table in the dining room—the table most of you probably think of as John’s and Dutch’s and my table. By the window. As often happens, I watched Caspar walk across the yard. He has done this nearly every morning since I came to The Manor. On the table in front of me I had a piece of paper and a pencil. I intended to write what I would say here at this service. Yesterday I thought, I can’t do it. This is too terrible, too sad, I’ll just break down and be unable to speak. What I’m almost doing right now. But then I said to myself, I must do it. John was my friend. Maybe he was the best friend I ever had.
“But as I sat there in the dining room I could not think of what to say. Anything I tried seemed meaningless. So I decided instead to play the piano. Maybe with that I can say something in memory of John.
“Hilary has found an electric piano for me. Thank you, Hilary.
“Many years ago I heard the great piano player Earl Hines play a tune that he had written, a tune called ‘Blues in Thirds’. First he played the tune, as jazz musicians do, straight. And then he improvised on it. It was a very simple tune and he improvised variation after variation, each one different. As he played, after he had played for what seemed a long time, I realized that he could go on forever. At that time I was trying to learn to play the piano. I never got good enough, I never got where I wanted to go, I never got anywhere near as good as Earl Hines, but I was young then and I thought: ‘That’s what I want to do—to be able to go on forever.’ It sounds crazy I know.
“This morning I am going to play ‘Blues in Thirds,’ and improvise on it a few times for John. I will not go on forever.”
Stepping down. Walking to the piano. A Yamaha electronic keyboard sitting on an X stand. My old liver-spotted hands, bony fingers, on the keys. Ready.
Wishing it wasn’t me that was left behind. Looking up, seeing Dutch with tears in his eyes.
I played the tune.
I played twelve choruses. I counted them. I could have gone on longer, but not much. I was tired after twelve, and I liked what I had done. Not bad. I played better than I had in a long time. There was quiet applause. A fat tear splashed onto the keys. It was corny, like in an old black-and-white movie, my tear falling onto the A below middle C, and a little splashed on the A flat. Then I got up and sat in the chair I’d vacated, between Hilary and Dutch.
Hilary, putting her hand on mine.
Months have gone by. How many?
I’m in the dining room when the snow begins. Without bothering to get my coat I open the door and step out into it, small flakes angling down. It’s going to accumulate. The air is cold and I’m filled with a terrible sadness. A certainty that this is the last snowfall I will see.
The piano, it might be over. Possibly. With this oxygen tube in my nose it seems some part of my brain is gone. I get screwed up, I lose the tune. My fingers aren’t right. I don’t know why.
Jesus I feel awful. Weak. Nauseous. What’s left to live for? Tell me.
Dutch has come into closer focus, has gotten larger. His face is bigger, his body, his presence at the table. It’s just the two of us. The short tangled hairs that obtrude beyond his nose orifices, his hairy ears, his earnest affectionate gaze as he talks to me. He is clearer than I’d thought, he is clearer than John was, he is quite intelligent, and I like him less and less, in fact I think I hate him. I dread his progress, whether visible as he nears with his tray, or conjured as I imagine him leaving his room, as he walks the hallway toward the dining room, toward our table. A table of two, no longer a table of three. Of course the problem isn’t so much the presence of Dutch, it is the absence of John. Yesterday I had the impulse as Dutch and I ate our suppers to get up and walk by myself to the river and throw myself off the bridge. I swear I could have done it. Afterward I wanted to tell Hilary, but when I set out to find her I realized I wouldn’t tell her. And the reason was that I wanted to keep the possibility of killing myself to myself—partly so as not to cause her worry, but mainly to prevent her trying to fend off the move, so that I might keep it in reserve.
John. It is so difficult. I have never been so lonely.
I miss you, Ralph.
I want to die.
You will, Ralph. Be patient.
Did it hurt, John?
Were you and Sally screwing?
We weren’t. But I wanted to.
Thank you old pal.
Smoking is bad, Ralph. Your cough is terrible.
Morning, I wake.
Thinking: ah, a summer day. Lovely beginning.
Or is it?
I go to the window and open the slats.
The ground is covered with snow.
Frosty blue sky.
Ah yes. I remember.
I am taking a walk. It is longer than usual. By myself.
Dad, you had no ambition. Why?
I had the piano, Junior. But it wasn’t enough.
I wasn’t good enough.
Are you sure?
Why were you so unhappy, so lonely? Why such a grouch all the time?
Because Sally didn’t love me.
She couldn’t help that.
I made up a story—Byron, the boy in the car with you, he came to visit me. He seemed so old. I played the piano for him.
That wasn’t made up.
Oh, Christ, I am so glad to hear that. Where are you?
I don’t know. I miss you.
You don’t hate me?
Will I see you?
She could be mean, she said awful things to me.
Her face had the carvedness of dusky-skinned Mediterranean women. Above her upper lip was a dusting of hair so fine that until near the end of her life it was invisible except in a particular light. When she was young this was a powerful erotic stimulant that surprised anyone kissing her for the first time.
Ah, Sally—talk to me from wherever you are. Say something that will help me hold on.
I loved you all the way through, Ralph. From when we met until when I was looking up at you from the bed in the hospital, seeing you for the last time. I didn’t always like you, but I always loved you.
You were a terrible lover. You were great at first, when you were young, and afterwards from time to time. But, Sweetie—
You thought too much. You were too quiet. You forgot how to be—creative—
My dick got bent and it shrank.
Yes. Let’s not remember that.
As if I could forget.
You could have gotten around that problem, Ralph. You gave up so easily.
Let’s try again, Sally.
Oh sure. Just rewind.
Were you and John screwing?
It doesn’t matter.
What do you mean?
Junior—it is so cold. It is so damn cold. I don’t think I can go any further. Maybe this is it.
Keep going. Just a little more, Dad.
You were pretty good at baseball. At Little League. Shortstop—
I was terrible. So glad to quit sports.
Don’t quit, Junior. Please. Don’t give up.
Ralph, will you stop telling him what to do! He’s an adult, he’s grown up!
Who said that?
You know who, Dad
You’re ganging up on me. Now when I’m so cold and tired—
John, please talk to me, I’m cold.
Each footstep compacts snow.
be careful, old man—
leaves . . . and the bark’s intact.
wind getting warm
smells of the cow’s warm flank