In August of 1934, when my father packed his bags and went to bury his friend Otto, I was still too young to have any friends among the dead. Otto would have been a good friend to have, I suppose, if his keen sense of politics helped him to open any doors in the world beyond, but the sad truth was that I could barely remember his face. For obscure reasons he’d stopped coming to visit us long ago.
Rolling the ball of her mother’s carpal-friendly mouse, Ani woke the hibernating laptop to find an unfamiliar screen. The last person in the office, a balding guy Marie had called an impudent beast because he’d devoured the last package of peanut butter cookies without asking, must’ve changed the default from Chrome. This new search engine’s logo was a cyan ball with big, cartoon eyes that glanced toward the text box when she hovered the cursor around it. Ani steadied herself as she typed.
Rapid heartbeat, nausea, confusion, dizziness.
“Ani, we need those sheets changed.” Marie hustled down the hall with a bottle of window cleaner and a bundle of newspaper. Her dark hair was held in a high bun that looked like it’d fall out if she turned her head too quickly, and she was still wearing the loose cotton pants and tank top that she called her pre-guest outfit.
“They’re in the dryer, Mom.”
The computer stalled. The impudent beast must’ve forgotten to clear the cache. She refreshed, noticing that the camera light was blinking purple instead of red. When the same old links came up, she deleted the search and began to type impudent, just to be sure.
With the exception of the hand towels, Edith and Mark’s mom kept a neat house. Every Sunday, she’d crouch down and slide ratty bath towels around the just mopped wood floors, dewey and smelling of fresh pine. She’d scrape Mark’s salty and crusted remains from the corner behind the toilet with steel wool. Emptying the trash, she’d find the cigarette butts he tried burning us with wadded up in toilet paper.
The hurricane passed in rain and in wind that threw sand from the beach against our windows. But none of the windows ever gave and we only lost power for couple-minute spans, never for the long haul.
That next morning, the sun was shining. It was still windy, but not the kind of wind that would overturn a car or uproot a tree. The kind that would, at worst, mess up your hair, maybe pry loose one of the balloons outside the venue.
I drove to the liquor store in the bright red Ford Ranger that I used for work, covered in all the dents and scrapes that I was responsible for. I wasn’t very good at my job, and given how torturous the experience had been when my father taught me how to drive, having already parted ways so many years before, the idea that I would now be working for him in a role that required precisely the skills that eluded me seemed the cruelest twist of the knife. As if I needed another chance, with every dent I inflicted, to make him ashamed of me, the son who could have been nothing but a failure to him. That to maintain my bohemian dreams, the price I would pay would be to see him staring at me not knowing if it were his glass eye or not. The same look he gave me when I saw him after my mother had told him that my wife and I had split, so long after it had happened.
“And it’s what—permanent?”
“I think so, yeah.”
It was the closest we had ever got to really talking about anything and my skin burned. How could I talk about it with him? How could I talk to him anymore than I could tell Danielle that I couldn’t have a baby with her?
“Just the Lion Red?” the man at the liquor store said.
“The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy’s soul’s questions sullenly timing, some drown’d
– Walt Whitman
I waited for the right time to leave,
which was not a specific time,
but how to tell? He was dying now,
so time was stuck in hell. Better
to say something than sit
like a sentry beside his bed. Better
to act as if we were home and I
was twelve again. So, I rose
The lizard was an unusual choice for a favourite toy. It wobbled like old jelly and its rubber had the catch of human skin to it. Half of its bottom jaw was missing on account of Matilda’s insatiable need to chew. It went everywhere with her and today it was in the kitchen, its green mouth gaped over the crusty end of the bread.
“Move it, Tildy.” Mallory stopped sawing through the loaf. “The kitchen is no place for a lizard.”
The directive was met with a stomp and a pout.
“That thing has been in your mouth. It’s not hygienic. Take it away.”
“Matilda! Do you want time out?”
The little girl grabbed the lizard to her chest with chubby hands.
I am what the professional opera singers call a hobbyist – I only sing in the chorus, never the named roles.
In one hour, on the verge of my 40th birthday, I will perform the role of Kanva in Schubert’s Sakontala on my home stage with the Florida Grand Opera. I should be nervous. Shaking. But I’m not. I have practiced every free minute of every day since I won the role of Kanva. This part might be the door that opens just wide enough to walk through. Or it could be my only chance, my one time to shine.
And, if that’s the case, I’m okay with it. I’m calm because I have nothing to lose. No matter what happens, I am one of the few, lucky souls who can step into the light of an opera stage and know its warmth.
Andy and Dad always stopped off at the church before going fishing. Andy looked through the window as they crunched over the gravel, and waved to the man inside.
Pastor Cunningham sold tackle and bait and rods from a room at the side of the church, even on Sunday mornings, and even when it was still dark. He would read the Bible with his feet up. He opened his shop half an hour before dawn — even on Christmas and at Easter — according to sunrise times listed in the Kaipara Harbour Fisherman’s Handbook, which he put together himself each summer using the photocopier in the Church office.
The shop smelled of bait and ice and oil, and that black tea the pastor drank. There were always strange shadows on the wall made by the rods standing at different angles in the window. Pictures and maps of the Kaipara harbour were pinned to hessian boards. The room seemed crowded and full and was always warm, even in the black winter mornings.
“Nice morning,” said the Pastor.
“She is,” said Dad.
Andy had seen pictures of priests and church-men, on TV and in books: Pastor Cunningham looked like none of them. He looked pretty much like Dad, hairy and tall and brown from the sun, with a pot belly where he would sometimes rest his hand, or his tea, or his glass of beer. He dressed in shorts and a brushed cotton shirt, red or blue usually but with other colours running through it, except on Sundays when he wore his brown corduroy trousers and a shirt and tie.
Cunningham was his first name, and his last name was Thomas. Cunningham Thomas. Andy had first thought he must have had them backwards, but no, Mum said that was the way it was. Backwards was forwards.
Mum had grown up with Pastor Cunningham, and so had Dad. They’d all been kids together. Some people, like the big kids at Andy’s school and some of the grown-ups, called Pastor Cunningham a different name. They called him Sly Bacon. Mum didn’t — Mum called him Cunningham — but Dad did. Actually, most often Dad just called him Bacon, and he didn’t seem to mind.
Pastor Cunningham pulled a bag of bait from the chest freezer and handed it to Dad. The bag had frozen into a strange shape, like a squashed sausage. Dad pulled out a two-dollar note from his pocket. The pastor raised his hand.
“I’ll take a smoked Kahawai, next time you come by,” he said.
“You’ve always been a gentleman,” said Dad.
They walked back to the car. The sky was beginning to glow.
“How far we going today, Dad?”
They sat at the table next to us—a deuce, with her on the banquette and he in a chair on my side about a foot and a half separation between us. I never saw his face but watched hers as he stroked her hand, entwined their fingers and made circles on her palm with his index finger. She was attractive. He had a shaved head and was obviously in deep love. She spooned her soup with her right hand as he held her left and I wanted to tell him to back off—give her some space but I was supposed to be engaged in conversation with my husband and the other couple with us. If we were two tables away I would have pointed them out.
A copy of AARP Magazine arrives unexpectedly on our 50th birthdays signaling our official entry into the world of “seniors.” In the beginning it feels strange, maybe a bit insulting, to be included in this group. We disdain the articles titled: “Your Life Reimagined,” and “How to Protect Your Brain From Shrinking,” and “Are Your Senior Moments Normal,” and “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” And the ads for prescription drug discounts, long term care insurance, heart healthy foods, “stairlifts,” walk-in bathtubs, hearing aids, medical alert services? None of this interests us. Some of us trash the magazine as soon as it arrives every month. Others flip through it, thinking, “Thank God nothing in here applies to me.” After all, we still have jobs and kids and mortgages and parents to tend to.
But then our parents go to assisted living facilities and nursing homes and funeral homes. Our children grow up. They drop out of high school, go to college, to graduate school; become businessmen and computer programmers, professors and psychiatrists, bartenders and cooks, stay-at-home mothers and fathers. They make us proud and break our hearts.
They move out, move away, move on.
They don’t need us any more.
And so, after a few years we start thinking of retiring. We ask: How long do we really expect to live? and How much money is enough? We wonder how often we will want to eat out and how many cars we’ll require. And what if the house needs a new roof? or What if we decide to build a screened-in porch? What if my mother comes to live with us? We wonder if we should buy Euros or annuities, government bonds or CDs; if we should sell our house and down-size; if we should move closer to the kids or go where it’s warmer, or cheaper, or where there are more golf courses, more colleges, more theaters, more hospitals. We talk to friends, stockbrokers, bankers, financial advisors, relatives, estate lawyers, investment gurus.
Soon we realize there’s really no way to figure out the amount of money we’ll need. There are too many variables. What’s the formula? Life expectancy times life style, plus cost of living, minus health costs, minus investment losses, plus dividends, divided by travel interests, plus clothing allowance, minus prescription drug costs.
Some of us have spouses who are ready to quit working before we are and now the five-year age difference that didn’t seem like much when we married is a chasm we struggle to bridge. We lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling and wondering: How will it work if he retires and I don’t? and Should I try to work part-time? and Will he want to travel without me? We wonder if we’ll resent him spending money if we’re the only one earning it, and without jobs and kids if we’ll sit at the dining room table struggling to find something to talk about. He sleeps next to us in our king-size bed, snoring blithely, oblivious to our anxiety, our fear that retirement may strain our already fragile relationship.
Somewhere I got this idea that I was lucky. Or not an idea, more of a feeling really, like my heart was a muscled four leaf clover pumping pure gold through my veins. I’m telling you, you don’t ignore a feeling like that. You’d be dumb to. So I did what any self-possessed American would do and got myself out to Vegas.
It took me about a day to go bust. I even lost my left shoe to a security deposit I couldn’t make good on. But you know what, it took me less than four hours after that, thumping through the city in one stocking foot, to scrounge bus fare home from change dropped in gutters and on sidewalks. (I’ll own up to it: security did pull me out of the fountains at Caesar’s Palace and let me know in no uncertain terms that they never wanted to see me fishing for pennies again). But really. Where else but America could a one-shoed man make out so well?
My wife saw it different though.
The phone is all the way across the house. The kitchen, the dining room, the long corridor. It didn’t used to look so long. I’ve told you this house is too big for you. Each step is so slow. Just three digits to dial, 9-1-1. And yet, it’s so far. A trip across the house like a perilous adventure. One more step. Betsy offered to stay, didn’t she? You should’ve taken her up on it. She will feel terrible if…no, no, you can’t think that. Not as long as you keep making step after step. Yes, that’s right, step after step. And that pressure in my chest is okay, it’s not so bad. It was nice of Betsy. She’s been nice to me for the last year or two. She used to be so irritable. I wonder what’s changed. One more step. Don’t panic. You can make it. Yes you can. One more step. One step at a time, nice and slow. Betsy has been doing better since she divorced that terrible man. Why not let your daughter stay overnight? You know why. She can’t stay every night, can she? Then she might as well move in. Tonight is like any other night, or at least it was supposed to be.
1855: the year Dr. Livingston became the first European to set eyes upon the waterfalls he would subsequently christen after his illustrious Queen. The same year British North American backwater Bytown was renamed Ottawa, inching up to a declaration of Capital. The year Central Park in New York City was orchestrated, landscaped, and constructed. The world did not yet exist in photographs.
The colonial mind of Dr. Livingston, concluding that anything not witnessed by Europeans sat nameless, awaiting. A man of his time.
More than half a century later, from the rubble of the First Great War, the British bully who forced a hard line in the sand through the nomadic tribes, and arbitrarily defined the Saudi Arabian border against Iraq. A border held, but never stable.
Upon a mound of bodies is no foundation for a moral high ground.
He writes in his notebook: at times I try to fabricate a memory.
Tucker was struck by how different Miles looked in his pictures. Time had been good to him. He was bronzed and broad-shouldered, muscular and bearded, a handsome, smiling buccaneer. Gone was the pale, waifish, gloomy boy of Tucker’s memory. Tucker looked different, too, he knew. His hair was thinner. He was softer and flabbier, thicker around the middle. There was more flesh under his chin. He had, by his own admission, not aged as well as his friend. But he reassured himself. Looks aside, he had been pretty fortunate. He had a beautiful wife who loved him. He had sold more houses last year than any other Realtor in his company. He had financial security, a nice house on a good street, and a son on the way. By nearly every objective measure, he was doing quite well.
By the looks of his house, Miles was doing quite well, too. He lived in a large, impressive Tudor in the middle of a broad shady street lined with other large, impressive Tudors. As Tucker and his wife pulled into the driveway, Tucker estimated the house’s value. He figured it would go for about four hundred and fifty thousand if it were listed tomorrow. If he were the seller’s agent, he thought he could probably get five hundred thousand for it. He quickly calculated the commission in his head: a little over six thousand dollars after the buyer’s agent and the brokers took their shares. Not a bad haul. With that kind of paycheck, he could take a month off.
Tucker and his wife parked and got out of their car. Miles came out to greet them. Dressed in a tight gray t-shirt and form-fitting jeans, he looked even more chiseled and strapping in person than he had in his pictures. Behind him came a tall, trim man with a shaved head and dark, deep-set eyes. Tucker reached out to shake his friend’s hand. Miles ignored the hand and went right for a hug, wrapping Tucker up in his strong arms. He slapped Tucker on the back and pulled away. “Tuck,” he said. “It is so good to see you. It’s been too long.”