Andrew Martin looked out at the post-New Year’s snow and thought of all the New Year’s he had passed happily: first with family, then friends, then girlfriends, then a wife (who had just died five years or so back of unalarming natural causes), then friends again at his local bar. A woman or two had indicated interest after his wife had passed, but as he was already sixty-five when she went unexpectedly in her sleep, and they had been a congenial couple, if not a passionate one (since their children had reached ages of discretion a little late—the girl at twenty-five and the boy at twenty-eight)—he didn’t really warm up to their courtships. Those were things he didn’t expect the young of this age to understand: first of all why he wasn’t haring off after another fast lay the minute the previous one was cold in the ground (and to give her her due, his wife had never been a “fast” lay, always requiring his utmost attention); secondly, what “the age of discretion” was supposed to be about. He had once heard a minister from a church he had attended when young insist that the true age of discretion was at twelve or
thirteen, the age of baptism in his previous faith. But that didn’t hold water when he looked at the droopy pants and the chains and dog collars and earrings everywhere in every blessed place, and the ear buds always in so that no one of them could hear a thing you said to them, as if they had somehow aged with him.
Now, his own children had been comfortably placed growing up, since he had been a copy editor for a national newspaper until he retired, and they well-provided for. He and his wife Becca had kept the strange manifestations of adolescence and struggling independence to a minimum. He thought now that perhaps it only stood to reason that their offspring had to do their rebelling against someone at some time, and roughly ten years ago, as if they were acting on cue, they did so.
The girl, Tabitha, had gone to live in something called a yurt and grow cabbages and mung beans, among other things. It lasted for two years before she’d sensibly married and settled down with an academic woman who, though Becca and Andrew were a bit taken aback at the abrupt change of sexual preference—which their daughter denied was
abrupt—was a matter-of-fact teacher of writers and editors, and gave Andrew someone in his own area of expertise to “chew the fat with,” as she didn’t seem to mind hearing him put it.
Andrew’s and Becca’s son, David, had at twenty-eight started investing all the money he had made in sensible real estate deals in bitcoin and video game developments which, always puzzling to him, never worked out. Whether it was because it was “the nature of the beast,” Andrew told himself and Becca, or whether it was just that his son had no talent in those fields (if one could call them that), it was sad and a little touching to notice his hurt face at his own failure. Nothing had prepared him to fail, and he seemed a little aggrieved with persons unspecified, since he never seemed to blame the “crooks and vagabonds,” as Becca put it, who led him into these ventures. When Andrew finally put it to him once that he credited his own parents with his bad luck (which was all he outwardly called it), he protested that that wasn’t the case, but he avoided them for a year and a half, only to return with a woman and two tiny kids in tow, whom he’d taken on as a “partner in crime” (an expression which raised anxiety in his parents
until it was explained to them that there was no actual crime being committed, and that while the woman and Andrew were consorting as an ordinary married couple “without the benefit of wedlock, the way they do these days,” as Becca put it, they were also business partners in a bed-and-breakfast chain which Andrew had actually heard of before he knew his son was involved).
Becca and Andrew had both breathed more easily and felt that they’d gotten off lightly: no suicides, no murders, no drugs or rehabs, no obvious mental illness, no prison sentences, barely even a speeding ticket, though Shirles, Tabitha’s wife, had complained that Tabitha kept getting cautions for bad parking maneuvers. And so, ages of discretion duly reached, even if late, Andrew and Becca relaxed with each other, only to find that they now preferred discussing things to fucking, though neither of them wanted to cheat or split up, and both felt that they had a good thing in the other. Still, Andrew had definitely gotten the sense that the two kids expected him to cut loose after a certain interval for grieving Becca. David had even patiently shown a patiently unwilling Andrew how to use a dating site, but it hadn’t taken. The only
two responses he’d gotten had been from a female truck driver and a potter, and he had his reasons (a prejudice against long-distance relationships, and a desire not to have the house bunged up with clay and mess).
Now, though, Andrew’s children were turning their sights on him in ways that made him mostly uncomfortable. On the one hand, he felt it was a tribute to their upbringing that they had ready empathy with him,
which he’d earlier doubted. On the other, it was a considerable nuisance, at the mere age of seventy, to be considered senile, or at the very least in need of being checked upon, as if having declined to participate in the human search for a partner, he’d also somehow forfeited his chance to be considered independently strong. He didn’t quite know how it had happened, actually, but he found himself attending a day program for seniors in the Good Days Weekly Meeting Program. His surly rejoinder to one of the attendants when she addressed him in a condescending fashion was “Look here, missy, this may be a place for good days, but I don’t have good days and bad days, right now all my days are good days, and I don’t need you talking down
to me to make that happen.” It had shocked her out of her momentary stupidity, but the next second, while she was still staring at him, undecided how to respond, she was summoned by a woman who flirted with the men in an imprecise fashion, and fawned on the attendants in a way the characters on the show “Golden Girls” would only have done as a ploy. Andrew tried to believe the attendees were capable of this, but saw no real evidence of it. The platinum blonde waggled a wrist at her to summon her over. The attendant, Jo Ellen, as her name tag stated in sprightly dark, large italics, gave him a magnificent, totally insincere smile and said, “Now, Mr. Martin, let’s not be rude. I was just trying to make sure you were comfortably seated. When we get old, sometimes we don’t seat ourselves properly, and we fall. I know you don’t want that to happen, do you, sweetie?” Before he could reproach her for her too-familiar form of address, she called to the beckoning diva across the sitting room, “Right there, Mrs. Cavenish!” and whisked off.
The thing is, it didn’t sort well with him, as he didn’t feel in hindsight that he had come off looking down on her, too. To have
remained sitting instead of facing her eye-to-eye was weak, though standing would have been taken as a sign of senile aggression and grounds for further interference. It wasn’t entirely unaccountable, but he felt depressed as he first thought of the long, hard road of somewhat unacknowledged grief he’d traveled since Becca’s death; then, this led to an unwelcome reminder of the other long, hard thing he’d once been able to count on in his person that people now would probably find laughable. He caught himself looking at his reflection in the mirror more often: had he really aged so much that women, except for ones his own age who were only looking for less than what he and Becca had had, didn’t find him the least bit threatening in an attractive way? An even more offensive thought to him, though he felt it was unfair to consider it so, but couldn’t help it, was the thought that one of those ominously haggard older women did desire him as a man. That, to a man who’d had a beautiful wife like Becca, with her long, curly brown hair and green eyes, her winsome figure, oh, he just couldn’t bear the thought!
He looked first to make sure that Jo Ellen was employed with his fellow attendees, and that no other attendants were close at hand or watching. Then, he stood up and walked over closer to the picture window, and found himself a chair there, just by the drapes and in that manner half-hidden from the rest of the room, as well as above the baseboard heating that ran at the bottom of the huge pane of glass to keep things from freezing. An antiquated setup in some respects, but still in good repair. That made him smile: that’s what he was, an antiquated setup sometimes, but still in good repair. He’d show them. They weren’t going to load him down with some old biddy ready for the grave.
Andrew sat and grew dreamy and peaceful, watching the snow fall on all things, like a forgiveness, like a thought of love, like a long time coming for every person on the earth, sooner or later. The flakes were the kinds he’d always preferred, the big, fluffy, heavy ones, full of water and melting on your cheek when they landed there, almost as if you could hear a tiny voice sizzling into nothingness, but not really, he knew. Not like the small, tiny frozen pelts of half-ice there’d been around
Christmas time. Those were for misers and people who hoarded their love and contentment and didn’t share feelings. He and Becca, of course, hadn’t talked much of feelings past the first few years, they’d been too busy with raising their kids, and they hadn’t married early, so they were both a bit settled down. Their marriage was based more on resemblances than it was on passion, he told himself half-regretfully now. The snow, drifting in the softly whirling breeze to and from the window at several different moments, seemed to agree with him, to induce a slight feeling of melancholy. Why hadn’t he been better loved? He tried to think if anyone had ever loved him to distraction, had ever wanted to die for the threat of the lack of him. It wasn’t an entirely pleasant topic, as it didn’t present him in the best light, the “leaver” in the equation of leaving or being left, but just as if on cue, the watered down version of the song playing over the sitting room speakers, overcoming the droning and blaring of the two side-by-side TVs at the wall farthest away, caught his attention. One of the TVs was tuned to a game and the other to a game show, and the two circles of chairs seemed from a distance to interlock the men and women in a sort of Venn
diagram, with a few from each group staring at the opposite tv. But even over that distraction, his hearing was still good enough to catch the melody that seemed to have come along just in time to his thoughts: who was the artist now? Paul somebody. It was Paul Simon, wasn’t it? Something about whether it was better to be a hammer or a nail.
Was it that he had decided to be the hammer and not the nail? Was it that simple? Was he that callous and calculating? He felt the memories come up to him unbidden, flooding him, filling his stolid, sensible, comfortable old heart with an unfamiliar and now nearly forgotten pounding, a swift tango-beat, a mournful, wingeing, wincing, cry on the air that the next second caused him to clap a hand to his mouth and hold it for fear of what was coming out of it! He looked around. No one was looking at him. The three male attendants were at the TVs with the circle of men watching the game, and the few circling female attendants were still helping to clean up the remains of the lunch trays from the tables so that in a half hour or so, bingo could go on. He hated it here, but he had bigger problems now.
He didn’t want to remember the girl, the girl, the girl, no, she had been a woman, a young woman, he now admitted to himself, fully cognizant of what he was to her and what she had been to him. She had been a lover, a lover he had deserted who said she loved him truly, couldn’t get on without him, who had braved the fact that he was only two years married himself, and to Becca, of all people, who’d never had an idea. And that long, wailing cry—that cry that he had once thought might have been like the Romantic idea of a demon lover driven to hunt at night, but always in deep despair for the lost love— that had come from her lips; he had heard her crying out for him as he had rushed out the door that last night in a frenzy of nervous cowardice, and it had just now burst from his memory and threatened, still threatened, to come in echo from his own lips.
And he had heard through the newsman’s grapevine that she, a talented photojournalist, had after that traveled madly across Eastern Europe, going wherever, it seemed, there was risk, and had died there in an attack on her hotel one summer night while he was peacefully reading a scary ghost story to his two young children, who
had begged for the treat. It after all hadn’t been that scary, had just been the latest kitschy thing for kids, but he had chilled to the core when his friend Sam Dreyfus had called to tell him the news, just as he had bid his children a final goodnight. Becca had taken one look at his pale face, and said “What’s wrong? What in the whole world is the matter with you?”
“The whole world is it,” he responded, “the whole world.” He had put a hand through what had been at the time a full head of hair, and had sat on his bed, saying nothing. So marked was his silence that Becca had sat in the rocker opposite and just waited patiently for him to say more, but he couldn’t summon up the words for what he knew he should have told her long before. Or should he? he had thought. Was it really his responsibility to set all right that was wrong this far after the fact, when he was well-embarked on being indispensable to another woman? He had just muttered under his breath, “Some journalists and photographers killed again, another time, in the Caucasus or somewhere near there. Some people we all sort of knew.” Unbidden at that time, a story he had then recently read popped into his head. It was Joyce’s story, “The
Dead,” about a man who’d been to a winter party with his wife, had been in the midst of a snow fall and found it emotionally provocative, and who had planned to make passionate love to her until he discovered by accident that she’d been deeply and seriously in love with a man when she was young; a man who had died of love for her, she thought. A sad, morose story at the end, though the Christmas party had seemed like a fair amount of early 20th century sentimentality and nonsense, to Andrew’s mind. But now, it seemed as grotesque a long preface to the short ending as his reading of the ghost story to his children also seemed, homeopathic magic, a calling up of a thing by a similar thing. Ghosts. A ghost.
He had been more silent than not for a few days after that, but no one among his friends had known of the affair, and so he was allowed by circumstances and his own circumspection to forget it himself, and the years passed peacefully and uneventfully. Now he was old, and his wife was dead, and he was being visited by a ghost in this totally unlikely setting, where he could already hear people getting ready for the bingo, in the back of his awareness.
He was also suddenly aware of someone approaching, so he turned more firmly to the window, but there the snow was now accusing him again, as the memory of “The Dead” and a winter scene had long years ago, that heart-frozen day in summer, and in his frustration and double grief, for his love, his long ago love whom he had so cavalierly deserted and for his placid, undemanding wife, he threw a hand up and away, only to strike against something warm and soft. In confusion, he made an attempt to move his hand away without turning around, but as he was forced to turn anyway, he saw that his hand was making contact with the crotch and flowery pastel scrubs of his old enemy, Jo Ellen, whose shocked “Eep! What the hell! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Oh, I, what are you doing over here?” He felt helpless, as she had possessed herself of his wrist, and was still holding it accusingly. He saw now that one of the male attendants had heard her loud, brassy exclamation, so overdone for what had actually happened, and was on his way over in a meaningful manner.
“Is this old bastard bothering you, Jo Ellen?” He didn’t mince words. Andrew now saw that it was Larry, who had a thing for Jo Ellen in
particular, according to all the gossips, which Andrew had in the short time he’d been coming here already heard, but affected not to hear or be interested in.
“No!” Andrew protested.
“Yes, he did!” Jo Ellen insisted. “Always giving me grief, and then the first time he has me off by himself in a corner, he grabs my hoohah. And he took a swipe at my boobs, too!”
The only thing that Andrew could be thankful for was that in this modern ridiculousness and trial by combat with Jo Ellen, his ghosts had quickly turned and taken their leave, back out into the snow, and he had a momentary thought that maybe he was better off with a few bad memories back in his own home during the days than he was allowing his children to bully him into this gross day school playpen for the elderly.
Jo Ellen said to Larry, thrusting Andrew’s wrist back at him in a violent way that made his now thinner arm bruise itself painfully against his chair, “Here I noticed him sitting sadly all alone over here by himself, and then I saw him cover his mouth like he had to vomit, and so
I came over to see how he was, regardless of how hateful he always is to me. And now this!”
“You just sit tight there, you,” Larry was threatening him. “I’ll go get the book, and we’ll write him up. He won’t watch tv, he won’t play bingo, he complains about the food, he’s rude to everybody who tries to be nice to him, it’s high time he got written up.”
With a sudden spurt of energy, Andrew stood up erect and said quite loudly for him, “Nobody does try to be nice to me, everybody’s just always talking down to me the same way they do to these old fools here, and I don’t want to watch these stupid shows, and I don’t play bingo, and the food here is awful, sheerly awful, I don’t eat white bread, for one thing. And I wasn’t trying to grab your twat, you foolish, rude, abrasive young bitch, I was distracted by some old thoughts and memories, and thinking of a story I once read. I don’t suppose either of you even know how to read stories properly, do you? Well, if you ever learn, sometime read James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead,’ it’s in a book of his stories called Dubliners. As in, the capital city in Ireland. As in, a major Irish writer who was also a world literary figure. You need to be exposed to
something beyond your own limited little corner of the world where everybody has your same motives.”
“My motives? What were you doing over here in the corner all by yourself? And why were you throwing your arm right around at me like that when I approached? You must’ve seen me coming. Were you trying to hit me, or what?”
“No, I didn’t see you! I sort of heard someone coming, but my mind was taken up with old things and I was watching the snow, if you must know. Far more pleasant than sitting around with all these old farts.”
“You’re an old fart too, buddy, and you shouldn’t be so high and mighty,” said Larry. “Jo Ellen, I’m going to go get the book. He shouldn’t be sitting around brooding to himself all the time, anyway. This is just what happens when people stay to themselves too much, they start to get weird. Grabbing for a feel is only the half of it. I’ll be back.” But Andrew knew he had to stand up for the young woman’s ghost now: for his remembered young love, and even for the calm platitudinous waters of his marriage, he had to defend his right to be with his ghosts, however they might tear and rend him. “Don’t bother!”
he said. “I’m leaving. You can’t stop me, I don’t come with the bus crew, and I’m not under the protection of my children. You can write your life story in that damned book if you want, but be sure you charge me off it; there’s no point in my children paying for this kindergarten for the senile anymore. I’m not crazy or demented or crippled, whatever the proper words are that we’re all supposed to use now, and I’m getting the hell out of here.”
He was quite definite, and he left the area before they could recover from his having taken them off their guard with his tirade. As a proper newspaperman, he actually knew what the correct words to use were, but his ire had rescued him from his terror at the approach of his shades from the past, and even a little from the fear of his own death to come. He had some trouble making the cloakroom woman understand that he was leaving, but at fifty-five herself, she had been the nicest person there to him. When he gave her a brief explanation, equal to equal, and she was reassured that he wasn’t under care of any kind, she delivered up his things to him: his coat and gloves, his toboggan and
scarf, and he strode with re-assumed vigor out the front door, where the snow greeted him.
The snow blew with the wind, and the wind blew with the course of the world, on and on, the shadows and thicknesses of flurries and even the patches of light through some strange heavenly break of cloud from time to time as Andrew walked home, eschewing a bus or a taxi, thanking his own form of gods that he was possessed of a comfortable income and apartment, and that he was on good terms with humanity, except for his one faulted lapse. He felt even a little fond, now, now that the ghost had reminded him, after this time, of her reality. For she was very, very real to him now, he knew, and he felt warmed by that knowledge, by not having to repress the memory of their love anymore, though his own last role had been so ignominious. He even thought, crazily, as he went along the way so familiar to him from other walks, that she must have forgiven him, still loved him, because she had come today, when he just couldn’t take that hellhole anymore. He said to her, “Amie, you’re welcome,” and with this, he accepted her again, and felt that she must’ve accepted him. He couldn’t bear it, otherwise.