I’m an old man and he’s an old man, seventy-eight, the two of us, on our birthdays just past. My wife is dead and his wife died too, a fact of life we’re living with. His children are grown and he lives alone. So are mine. So do I.
There are some differences, though. And here’s one. He exists and I do not.
It’s morning. His bulldog is licking his bare feet as he stands at the sink and drinks a glass of water to knock down the queasiness in his stomach. He drank too much last night and the slobbering tongue lapping at his toes is not helping his hangover. He shakes his leg at the dog. Getting the hint, she finds a half-dozen pieces of kibble in her bowl and finishes them before waddling into the room where he’s worked for the last forty years. She is already way ahead of him.
He takes a mug of coffee from the pot he’s brewed and walks it into the room where he turns on a lamp. He doesn’t so much need the light in the room. He needs the light in his head.
Last night was a bad night for him. It’s a year this month since his wife died. He’s been having trouble getting past the memories of all the years he devoted to her, the children, all that he did for them. For what, he muses, now that it’s all done and gone? He’s also having trouble keeping things straight in the here and now. His grandkids’ names, which he mostly can’t remember. Bills he paid or didn’t. Last week he stuck the TV remote into a potted plant, wasn’t able to find it for three days. So he’s been drinking alone at night and a little too much, thinking it will help and that he can handle it like he used to, and when he wakes in the morning it would be unbearable if he didn’t have me to knock around and focus his mind.
On the page on the screen in front of him, he’s left me in a tough spot. I’ve been here for eighteen, twenty hours now waiting for him to get me out of it. Or not.
In the life he’s created for me at the beginning of my story, he’s got me taking care of my grandkids, Sara and William, and William has just disappeared from the skateboard ramp where I think I last saw him. He’s had the kids’ parents go away for the weekend to visit old friends, and here I am in a park in Troy, New York, an ice cream truck crawling with tweens at one end, slackers and a couple of what appear to be runaway girls getting high at the other, the group of them under an overpass that filters traffic onto Route 7. I’m getting too old for this shit, and he knows it better than anyone, even as he begins putting words into my mouth.
“William! William!” He has me turn toward Sara. “Did you see where your brother went?” Before she can answer, he’s got me climbing up the skateboard ramp, arthritic hip and enlarged prostate in tow, approaching kids I don’t know, asking if they’ve seen my grandson: long hair, T-shirt with a grinning skeleton, ripped Adidas. None of the kids seem to know what I’m talking about, however, and we jump into a scene where the cops come and start to question me as if I’ve lost my mind as well as my grandson. And now my granddaughter Sara is crying. This asshole made her cry. “Grandpa, Grandpa, what’s wrong?” he has her ask me.
It’s at this point he decides he needs another cup of coffee. The fucker.
Two nights ago, when his own daughter called to check in on him, he couldn’t remember which of his daughters he was talking with. Worse, he couldn’t remember what either of them looked like. Took him ten minutes of conversation, dancing around the weather, what he’d had for dinner, if he’d been taking his Plavix and Paxil, before he could make sense of the voice to visualize this tall girl with short brown hair, now a fifty-year-old woman going grey. He never let on and she hung up thinking all was well. Then he cried for a good half hour.
As it turned out he never put William there in the park with Sara and me in the first place. Apparently, the kid’s parents let him stay with a friend this time, leaving me with only my granddaughter to care for. Sure, slurp your second cup of coffee, you smug son-of-a-bitch. Whoever coined the term misery loves company must have been talking about you and me.
He has one of the cops ask me my name, where I live, what year I was born, who the president is. I tell him Jack Benny, Nome Alaska, 1834, Abraham Lincoln. The cop, tone deaf to my sarcasm, starts to write it down in his pad before I wave my hand, indicating that I’m making a joke. “My name is Homer Fairchild, I live at 367 Seaforth Street in Troy, I was born in 1940, and the president is . . .” He has me pause a beat for comedic, can-you-believe-it effect. “Donald Trump.” At least he’s given me a good sense of humor and the politics to go with it. His politics. His sense of humor.
But the cops are not smiling. Why did you think you were here with your grandson, he has one of them ask me? Sara—bless the empathetic heart he’s given her—tells the cops that I always watch the both of them, so I must have forgotten for a minute that William wasn’t here today. Yeah, I forgot that William wasn’t here today, in the same way he’s been forgetting to dress himself in the morning and comes down to greet me in whatever he’s slept in the night before, barefoot, sometimes in just his boxers and a sweat shirt, sometimes a robe with nothing under it but the hirsute body he’ll be buried in. It’s half that he can’t find the reason to dress any more, half that he forgets he hasn’t.
He’s not what you’d call a household name, but he’s written a few books and between that and his teaching he’s made a living. Over the years, this house he lives in became the port he returned to daily to scratch out whatever success he’s had, his wife and children being the masts he lashed himself to whenever the temptations of drink or the urge to end it all came too close to overpowering him. A page or two a day, a chapter a month when he could manage it, three classes a week, one book every few years. Steady as she goes. Only now she does not go steady anymore. This boat that is his life is sinking, the sirens of the hereafter are singing his name louder all the time. All that’s left to him is his writing. It’s the wax he stuffs into his ears to resist the call to surrender.
The cops let me go, but Sara tells her mother what happened, and in the next scene he’s got me inside the whiz-bang of an MRI machine. It’s at that moment that I find out what my story is going to be about. It’ll be a short story and it’ll be about what all stories are about: life and death. But mostly death, or should I say the odyssey of getting there. Death sells. Death breaks our hearts.
When he was a boy, he rode a blue bike, a pinstriped Schwinn with a coaster brake and fat fenders that his father and mother saved up to buy for him. He cherished the bike in the way boys do and then someone stole it while he was inside a five and dime. This wasn’t in the days when there was a lot of that kind of thievery going on, and the loss of his bike was like the unexpected loss of a limb. He thought about revenge. He fantasized about finding who stole the bike and beating them half to death. But then the years went by and there was more of this kind of thing—a junior high sweetheart who dumped him for another older boy, his father dying of a heart attack when he was barely twenty years old—and he slowly realized that loss was not something you could revenge, that it was what we were put here to live with, and that’s when he found his calling. If he’s built his reputation on anything it’s as that author who writes about people who can’t seem to find happiness because loss keeps getting in the way. I wonder if it’s dawned on him that happiness is what you find after you accept that loss will keep getting in the way.
The tumor he has the doctors discover on my brain is massive and in a bad spot. To take it out they’d have to take out half my brain to get to it. He writes a passage that recalls the first thing I think of when they tell me about the tumor. A group of sentences about an uncle I had who also apparently died of a brain tumor and who, near the end when he was truly crazy, took all his money and rolled it up with rubber bands to stash it in the glove box of his Plymouth, wherein, one afternoon he took me out to the driveway and begged me to take the money and buy him a plane ticket to Greece so he could escape into the sun. Escape what, Uncle Tony, I asked him. Dying, he told me. Nobody dies in Greece, he said.
After that, he gets more daring and goes deeper into my mind, beneath the unpleasant memories and the fear of the pain I’m anticipating in the months to come, flooding me with a litany of those things I’ll leave behind when I forfeit the gift of my five senses. It’s as if he’s operating on my brain with words, not to remove the tumor but to remove and preserve the life around the tumor before it’s too late. My life. His life.
He has me recall the sound that the head of a zipper makes as it goes up the tracks of a jacket I’m putting on the first cold day of autumn . . . my mother walking into my room, thermometer in her hand telling me I’m not leaving the bed today, that delicious dryness of the fever that’s keeping me home from school . . . the unbelievable silence in the seconds after one of my infant children finally stopped crying after hours of crying in the middle of the night . . . the fat stack of property deeds on a Monopoly board after I’ve won the game . . . all the liquor I’ve happily drunk and how something so cold can feel so hot going down your throat . . . the last time I got caught in the rain . . . hit a baseball . . . kissed a girl I was not married too . . . lit a candle when the lights went out in a storm . . .
Writing this wears him out and in the middle of the sentence he gets up and leaves the room. He stands at a window in the kitchen and gazes through it. Two crows are squatting in a river birch he planted with his daughters in the back yard more than forty years ago. The crows are squawking at each other, bobbing in the branches at the top of the tree, snapping their beaks at the sky. With a writer’s force of habit, he silently translates the conversation he hears them having. Crow to English. Human to crow.
Don’t look now but somebody’s staring at us from inside the house?
I told you not to look.
I’m hungry. You hungry?
Both crows turn their heads toward the window as if he might be the meal they’re looking for. What’s truly haunting, though, is how the conversation he’s put into their beaks times out so perfectly with the crows finding him behind the glass. For a second, he imagines he’s controlling their thoughts and actions in the real world, in the same way he’s controlling mine in the world he’s created for me. He feels powerful and terrified all at the same time. Yes, playing God has always had its downside. For years it’s made him ponder what those beings he’s created would do to him if they had the chance, given what he puts them through, him being the One that gave them life in the first place.
Without realizing it, he starts tapping his foot on the floor. It brings the dog over to him, her truncated legs working double-time to propel her, her tail wagging. She’s been around for fifteen years but right now he can’t bring himself to comfort her in the way she’s so eagerly walked over to comfort him. Yes, indeed. He deserves whatever he’s got coming to him from all those creatures he’s lorded over. All the more so as the dog begins to yowl when he walks away and closes her out of the room.
Once more now we face each other, he and I. He’s moved me from the doctor’s office into my daughter’s kitchen where he’s sat me down at a table along with my daughter and her family, a pointed party hat on my head. It might as well be a dunce cap. The muscles in my cheeks and jaw are mostly slack and across my mouth I endure the drooling smile of an idiot. He’s not happy he’s had to do this to me. As if that’s some sort of consolation for either of us.
Months have passed since the previous scene in the doctor’s office—lapsed time he tossed off with a double space of empty lines—and now it just so happens to be my birthday (my last from the looks of it). On the table in front of me is a cake blazing with candles and at my side he’s got my granddaughter blowing at them because I can’t. Cheek-to-cheek we are, this girl and me, as if her having do this task for a dying man was not already enough pathos for a reader. And now this hack has everyone signing happy birthday to me, making sure to mention that I’m having a hard time recognizing the tune.
It’s in the writing of this last sentence that he stops cold. He’s begun to torture the both of us, and he knows it. It’s one thing to kill a man little-by-little, it’s another to murder a perfectly good story by feeding it clichés until it chokes on its own words.
Slowly at first and then with more speed, he backspaces over the last lines he’s written. I can feel the life he’s recently given me unraveling and let me tell you it’s not pleasant—my family unwound and made to vanish in mid-sentence, the flesh and blood pulled off my bones, and then my bones falling off the page as well. Who among us could watch a part of their life disappearing like this, bit-by-bit, without feeling pain, no matter how badly written that last chapter of our life had been?
And that’s when I see what he’s doing. It’s one of those ideas that begin with a thump of veracity in his chest before lighting up the circuits on the left side of his brain like fireflies among the trees. He knows what he wants from his story now. It won’t make any sense for me, but it makes perfect sense for him. It’s his story after all and this is how he wants it to end.
I reappear in an automobile which looks a lot like the one he drove until he had to stop driving it because he was having trouble remembering how to get where he was going. And now he has me in that car, my tumor temporarily forgotten about, or maybe gone all together. Either way, it’s a miracle that only a fiction writer could pull off.
Pushing the engine of this suburban hatchback to go faster than it’s ever gone, he’s got me speeding down a two-lane highway in the middle of who’s knows where—trees and roadside mailboxes blurring past—and I’m singing out loud to a Johnny Cash tune on a country western station. Reaching into my jacket pocket, he has me pull out a pack of cigarettes. Unfiltered Chesterfields no less, and when I light one up it’s a surprise for the both of us, let me tell you. Neither of us has smoked for more than thirty years. Though that’s not the real surprise. The real surprise is that when I catch sight of the flame from my lighter flashing in the rear-view mirror he has me raise my eyes to look at my face, and when I do it’s his eyes that are staring back at me.
Having ever so briefly reinforced the point that I am no more charge of this than anyone is ever in charge of anything, he turns his attention back to me. I’m getting high on nicotine, exhaling jets of smoke out of my nostrils, lighting another cigarette off the butt end of the first as I suck it down to my fingertips, the car under my feet overheating as I push it beyond its limit. You’d think this was reckless enough. But no, because now he has me reach under the seat and pull out a pint of bourbon. Cigarette in my teeth, I unscrew the cap, steering the car with my knees. I want to tell him to stop, that’s he’s going too far. But who am I to judge.
And then, from the back seat of the car, a loud, rubbery fart rips at the air.
It’s obnoxious and full-throttled and nearly human, except it isn’t. It’s the bulldog. He’s put the Goddamn dog in the car with me. I’m not really sure if it’s supposed to be his dog or my dog but whoever it belongs to, he has the animal’s head hanging out the back window, her jaws spread wide, that madcap bulldog tongue flapping like a banner in the wind. He writes in a look of release on the dog’s face that foreshadows dog heaven, as if little-by-little this animal is letting go of the old dog she was to be born again as a new dog with new tricks.
Pulling the strings inside me, he has me put my arm over the seat to get a better look at the dog, twisting my neck, reinvigorating an ancient pinch in the nerve. “That a girl,” he has me say, tears of pain in my eyes. “Who’s a good dog?”
The dog barks loudly, twice, as if two solid barks were enough to cover the unmistakable irony that he’s put me in his car with his bulldog farting all over the ending of my story. All he has to do now is change the pronoun. And so he does.
We drain the bottle of Bourbon, drop the driver’s side window and toss the empty onto the road where it explodes into shards along the double white line. Taking a last drag of the cigarette we’ve been smoking, we toss that out of window too. After that, drunk with a drunk’s overconfidence, we slap on the brakes, skidding into a grassy rest area at the side of the road. We listen to the engine heaving until out of mercy we turn it off along with the radio. Outside, a wind is blowing in from the east, whistling through the crevices it finds under the fenders and wheel wells of the car.
In the backseat, the dog looks out the window and spots what we’ve come for, the origin of the wind. It’s the lake, a hundred yards off, and she barks at the sight of it. We’ve been here many times before in our lives. It’s where we’ve been headed all along.
Exiting the car, we help the dog from the back seat to the ground, her old legs no longer able to make the jump. Stooping down we take off her collar, and then teetering away from her, we hang it in a maple tree where its silver studs and brass name tag catch the sunlight filtering through newly sprung leaves. Behind us the dog shakes and flaps her loose skin as if she’s just shed twenty pounds of weight and fifteen years of life.
We walk on, focused on each step, overcompensating for the liquor, the dog shuffling behind. About halfway to the lake we stop again and, making sure no one can see us, we take off our clothes. First go the shoes and then the socks and then the shirt and pants and underwear. Stepping out of our shorts, we catch sight of our penis and laugh until we have to stop to catch our breath. This shriveled stump between our legs couldn’t even rightly be called a penis any longer; the thought of how it used to inflate itself at will, its little head with an ego of its own, being the most laughable thing of all.
Fully naked and reaching the edge of the lake, we put our feet in the water. We’re so drunk we barely register the glacial temperature around our ankles and, forgetting that the dog is not also drunk, we call out for her to join us. She’s still a few feet behind but this is where she’s going to draw the line. It’s as if she knows how cold and dark and deep the water is and if she doesn’t know that, well, she does know that she can no longer swim. And so we stumble back to cradle her up in our arms and carry the warmth of her into the water with us.
Up to our knees now, the dog squirming against our chest, we look out over the water and, there, materializing on the surface of the lake, is our wife. She’s swimming parallel to the shore, her hands arcing toward the sky before disappearing under the surface, water dripping down her arms with each stroke. She’s young again and she’s wearing a red, one-piece bathing suit, her auburn hair streaming in her wake. Behind us we hear our daughters arguing on a blanket in the grass, the sound traveling across the years. They’re fighting over the sandwiches in a picnic basket and we lap at the sweetness of their voices.
Up to our neck in the water, the dog hyperventilating in the crook of our elbow, we begin to swim, kicking both legs, paddling with the dog. We want to reach back in time to rejoin our wife, to kiss her wet lips and share the sound of our children giggling on the shore. But the sun has gone down more quickly then we expected, its flames extinguished by the lake. Everything has suddenly gone dark and quiet and we can’t find our wife, can no longer hear our children. It seems that we’ve lost them for good, and that’s the moment we realize why we did what we did for them and what it was for. Sweet Jesus, we were put here to convince them this world is not a dream, forced to play that practical joke on them because how could they have gone on living if we had not.
Frantic, the dog kicks her legs against our chest, her claws piercing our skin to form a rosary of pricks. We try to hold onto her, but she manages to break free, not yet realizing this isn’t the freedom she had in mind. She howls, swallows water and then begins to sink, great bubbles of air rising from her jaw as she goes under. We grab for her, more out of instinct than out of desire, and then we give up and follow her down.
I never asked for any of this, but then again neither did he. I want to tell him to write us out of this particular ending. To put us back in our chair in the room he sat in for forty years, to give us just one more day’s work, one last chance to forget the names of our grandchildren or the street on which we live, to misplace objects and go on enduring the pain of loss that we said we could no longer endure. Even that I’d put up with if he would just rewind us back toward shore, put the dog back in the car and the car in reverse, sober us up and let us die a natural, if altogether baffling death. Unfortunately, the best he can do now is to write us into a new life. It’s the best any God can do.
I have become a catfish and so has he. His mouth is a gaping toothless oval and so is mine. He has foot-long whiskers that float backwards toward a shark grey body and morning to night he trolls the mud under black water feeding off the bottom, me inside him, him inside me. We are the same. We have the same cold stare, the same small brain, the same small expectations. In this moment, we remain as one.
Swimming toward the surface, we move in tighter and tighter circles, winding our prehistoric spine, waving farewell to the water with our tail as we jump into the air, the sun warming our back, our eyes reflexive, turning gauzy against the light. It seems like forever we are up there under the sky, but when we do fall it’s not into the water that we descend. It’s into that room in his house that he’s lived in for more than forty years.
Everything is quiet, but for the ticking of a clock, the panting of the bulldog on the other side of the door, the clicking of a last sentence and the pop of the final period. It’s then that I understand how he’s abandoned me.
I am to be left here alone, separated from him for the first time, endlessly swimming in a lake of his invention, living for eternity behind a scrim of his imagination. He, on the other hand, will get up from his chair and continue to walk on land, forgetting more and more of what made him who he was until he forgets it all and fades away.
I exist and he does not. I will go on living for as long as there are eyes to see, and he will not. There is a time for words and a time for sleep. No matter if any of this ever really happened or not.