On Friday night, as usual, Mike Duchamps appeared at the back door with a few typed pages rolled up in one hand and a six pack dangling from the other. “I told you I have plenty of beer,” I said.
“Come on, Stan. I never arrive empty-handed,” he shot back, which was true. Mike is a fiction writer from Pawtucketville, which is a section of Lowell named after the Pawtucket Indians, who lived here for millennia and are no more. I live in the Highlands, which is another section of the city, and not a part of Scotland. I’m Mike’s only close friend who reads a lot, and so the only one whose opinion of his craft he values. He’s been reading me his stuff over beers on Friday nights for years. In return, he never comes empty-handed.
We cracked a couple of brews and I poured them into mugs I had stolen from the Highland Tap when I was a kid. I used to drink with Mike and play bumper pool down at the Tap, or the Trap, as we used to call it. That was back when the drinking age was eighteen and the beers were 55 cents.
We went to sit in my living room. The furniture may not be showroom quality, but it is comfortable. Everyone says that. Everyone who comes, which is really not many people. I live alone. I took the end of the couch and he took the stuffed armchair so we could both put our beers on the end table. Very comfortable indeed. We’re both big guys—not fat, yet, but unless we start hitting the gym, probably in another ten years we will be fatties. And neither of us has made a resolution. I wear glasses for reading—he wears them all the time. He’s a bit unkempt, I must say. Not a mess, but unkempt. Nondescript. You wouldn’t see him in a crowd. Brown hair, untrimmed. Jeans. Plaid shirt. Soiled L.L. Bean jacket that now lay on the couch beside him. Light beard you can hardly see. He’s bordering on middle-age, bordering on everything, a bit downtrodden, I guess. But smart—he always had that going for him. And his wife, Gladys, she’s a sweetheart. He’s got a couple of kids in college, and he slaves away teaching History at Lowell High. He had written some pretty good stuff, and even gotten a few things published in respectable journals.
“OK,” I said. “Whatcha got?”
“I don’t have a title yet,” he said, as if this was some kind of disclaimer or what lawyers call a fact in mitigation.
“All right, let’s see. OK. So.”
I knew he was going to clear his throat, and he did. People never have to clear their throat to talk, hardly ever, but if they’re going to read, especially if they wrote what they going to read, they have to clear their throat.
“Ahem. OK,” he said again. “Here goes.” And he began to read:
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I lost my fear of death, and even my respect for it. It was not a loss that left me fearless; on the contrary, I became a greater coward; the fear of death was replaced by a far more profound fear of old age. A fear tinged with horror. And having crossed the milestone tombstone of fifty, the truth of Jacque Brel’s words stands like a granite pillar in the foreground of my mind at all times. To die is nothing, it’s a beautiful thing, but to grow old, ah, to grow old.
Dependency, second childhood, and the loss of faculties. Condescension in the vapid eyes of nurses, some nephew who wants you dead shouting in your nearly useless ears: “Why don’t you sit here! Do you want to sit here?” And thinking Ya deaf old bastard, the shrunken guardian of the few thousand yer keeping from me by inhabiting six feet on the wrong side of the ground.
I’m not there yet, I hope not by a long shot, but the harbingers come on stealthily. The blurred page, sore knees, a slight paunch, and the longing, that sad longing. The old songs that formed the background music of my youth twist my gut, or mock me like carnival music, reminding me of what I was, and all suggesting the same refrain: Those days are gone—forever.
And soon, you’re so out of it that you’re not even aware that you look ridiculous in your striped polo shirt, your shorts pulled up to your hoary chest, your knobby feet in socks and sandals. An old man, shuffling along in all the spiffy clothes they gave you on the last grim superannuated anniversary of your antediluvian nativity; growing tits and hair in the ears and wild eyebrows. And some perky guest on Good Morning America says that people in their eighties, people like you, can still have a healthy sex life, and everyone looks at you and the wizened wifie, and feels like they want to vomit.
He paused and picked up his beer mug, eye-balling me over the rim as he drank. I sat there, nodding, pensive, trying to give his work the attention it deserved and to say something that might be useful. “What do you think so far?” he asked as he set down his beer.
“You don’t like the idea of getting old. Where’s the story?”
“Never mind the story for now. It’s voice-driven.”
“Voice-driven.” I tried to dull the edge of skepticism in my voice. “People do like a story. But, go on.”
He wet his pipes with another swig and continued:
Yes, to die is nothing, but to grow old… what horror.
If one is not religious, where does one find solace? Shakespeare was right about everything else, and he offers a philosophical consolation on the point in question. You remember,
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field…
Forty was old in Elizabethan England. And with forty-one winters now having begun to blueprint the trenches in my own face, like the bard, I look at my children. My son, lean and taller than ever I was. My daughter, bearing the stamp of her mother’s beauty, and the easy grace of a confident young woman.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou could’st answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
Let me sink then, and let them grow, and when I’m a dribbling old fool with a bulbous nose and a boney chest peeking out of a tattered house coat, I may still catch a glimpse in my half-blind eyes, of some facial expression or gesture in which I’ll see living again my own old man, when, with hammer in calloused hand and nail pouch at waist, he could shingle a roof in a day.
“I like that last line,” I interjected. The positive reinforcement warmed him up and his voice took on confidence and urgency.
These thoughts were comforting once. The old Micmac Indian, Ed Guilmette showed me a decorative belt, a series of green triangles, the apex of each piercing the base of the next, the ever-renewing tree, death and rebirth, the eternal earth. You could slip away easily with that ever-renewing tree in your mind. But those consolations are harder to cling to because now the world decays with us. Ineffectual senators discuss the vanishing polar ice caps; hurricanes brood and gather in mighty columns above the warming oceans, and the men in black war turbans broadcast jihadist threats of global destruction against all of us infidels.
Words. Infidel. Semper fidelis. Fidelity. Fiel. I have been faithful to you Cynara, after my fashion. Mountains of words, rivers of memories, springs of ideas, but all constrained by the immutable borders of birth and death, and now, the shadow of the death of all. Lyrics, lines, songs remembered. And the brilliant young woman who died, the philosopher, the scholar, and at her funeral my cousin said, “Isn’t it strange that her experience, and knowledge, and understanding will never be combined in another human being in the same way.” And how can we imagine the day when all knowledge dies, when all our pages are gibberish, all our violins mute, all our technology a world-wide web of unpowered circuits. Never, raven, nevermore.
His head tilted thoughtfully for a moment, and he said, “Maybe I’ll call it ‘Nevermore.’” He looked at nothing for a few seconds, in what old writers called a “brown study,” then roused himself and said, “Not sure where to go from there.” A siren grew louder outside and we waited until it had faded along Pine Street. Then he asked again, “What do you think?”
I’ve known Mike too long to beat around the bush. “It’s fucking depressing.”
“Depressing or sad?”
“Not sure I know the difference.”
“You know the song, ‘Danny Boy’? It’s sad, but it’s not depressing. Elie Wiesel’s book, Night? Depressing.”
“Then what you read is depressing.”
Resignation tinged his voice. “I think you’re right. But then a lot of depressing works have made it big. Of Mice and Men. Angela’s Ashes. 1984.”
“But those all had a story. Are you setting up a story here?” I asked. “I know it’s voice-driven, but whose voice is it? Who is this guy who’s talking, and what else do we know about him? I know he has a couple of kids and he’s over forty, and he’s depressed about it. Why is he telling me this? What happens? Otherwise, you’re getting into ‘experimental fiction,’ and you know what I think about that.”
“But do you find the voice compelling at all? I ask because these thoughts struck me with a certain force when I wrote them down.”
“Compelling? Yeah, yeah, maybe compelling in a way, but you know, it’s a hell of a lot of old age and death and hopelessness and world destruction in a page and a half. If you can frame the ideas…”
“In a story.”
“Sorry to be a philistine, but people do like a story. Think of your most popular pieces. The ones people liked the best. There’s a reason. Something happens, Mike. Beginning, middle and end. Can’t be just a guy thinking thoughts, whether they’re depressing or sad, and even if they’re true. I mean we all know old age sucks.”
“Yes, but when I wrote it, the idea of how much it sucked, the totality of the pointlessness, the mystery and the…”
“All hit me. But you’re right. It’s random. That’s why I say I’m not sure what to do with it.”
“How about this—you, I mean the narrator, you, are a writer, and you have a friend like me, and you go over his house and read him a voice-driven, sad, depressing, random, thing, and then you find out the next day that he fucking killed himself.”
I thought he might laugh, but his glasses turned upward and he stroked his thin beard. “Hmmm,” he said, looking at the plaster ceiling, where the cracks spread out like a river with its tributaries. Finally, he nodded. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“Yeah, then, you, ah, you throw your manuscript into the fireplace—you’ll need a fireplace in the story and a good roaring blaze, and the paper flares and crinkles black like the earth when the exploding sun consumes us, or nuclear war, and then you hug your wife really hard, and look at the picture of your kids on the piano.”
“And so the theme is—just cling to what you have, like a drowning man clinging to a plank.”
“Right. You don’t question the quality of the plank, or its purpose, or what it’s drifting toward or anything. You just cling to that sucker ‘cause it’s all you got. And finally, maybe, you whisper a prayer for your dead literary critic friend. And there’s your title: ‘World Without End, Amen.’”
“Jimmy Breslin already used that one. But I like your idea.” He nodded judiciously, as if I were the sommelier and he had just tasted my best chianti.
We talked about titles for a while, and books and movies and drank another beer and Gladys texted him to ask him to pick up some Pepto Bismol on the way home. She had an upset stomach. Anyway, it was near 9:00 pm and we were both yawning and he got up and put on his coat and rolled up the typed pages and stuck them into his coat pocket. At the door, he smiled and said, “God, remember when we used to head out for the night at this time?”
“Those days are gone.”
“Now don’t kill yourself after I leave.”
“I don’t like the story idea that much,” I said.
“Right. Good night, Stan. And thanks for the input.”
When Mike had gone, I opened another beer. What the hell. It was Friday night. I looked around at my bookcases, and at the old family photos that sat above them, at the pile of New Yorkers on the mug-stained coffee table, the framed prints I’d collected in my travels. Not a very elegant plank. Maybe, I thought, I should start working out, shape up, ask Marian, that pleasant divorced secretary who worked in I.T. and was not unattractive, to go out for dinner. Sex. That would be nice. Of course I’d have to cheat on my girlfriends at hot babes dot com, sadly my only female companions these last few years.
I remembered that Marian had a ten-year-old kid. “I could be a good father,” I told myself, and pleasant images of fishing with the boy and reading Harry Potter to him flashed through my mind. Wasn’t that what my old friend and I had affirmed that evening? In the end, nothing matters but our bonds with other people. I wouldn’t see my parents in him, as Mike would in his kids, but that’s all right, I might still feel the bonds of wife and child. It would be nice to go together to see the boy in a school play, maybe hold hands with Marian in the darkened auditorium, or even to have a woman text you and ask you to pick up a bottle of Pepto Bismol, to depend on you for that. To need you.
And yet, as I was, I didn’t feel lonely or depressed or sad. Yes, Mike’s story, or whatever it was, was true. We were barreling down the road toward pathetic old age and death and if I turned on the television news I’d see suicide bombers and a divided country and ballistic missile tests and shootings in schools and malls. Felt like “The Eve of Destruction” all right. And I was alone in the middle of it all. Alone. Soon to vanish, like the Pawtucket Indians. Yet I didn’t really mind. How strong must be the will to live, just any kind of life. Still, it could be better. I made a sudden resolution. I would ask Marian out. If she said no, maybe I’d get a dog. I always wanted a Boston Terrier.
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