[EDITORS’ NOTE: Fabula Argentea dedicates this piece to the loving memory of centenarian Maria Pucino (Sep. 30, 1910–Nov. 19, 2014) and to all forever-young centenarians. Maria is shown here on the occasion of her 103rd birthday.]
If I were hard-pressed to establish a beginning to it all, I’d have to set it at five years ago, when I was one hundred and ten and caught up in the fray of competition. I Googled at least once a week, just to see who the competition were—who had died and who were the new kids on the block.
Then there were the emails to a few chosen competitors.
Before my computer (B.C.), I used to have the reference people at the library let their fingers—or so I thought—do the walking through their tomes of reference books and magazines. Then, Elizabeth, my seventy-seven-year-old daughter (still doing nicely today, at eighty-two), who fancies herself as socially and intellectually modern, enjoyed explaining that research librarians don’t look up things any more between the hardbound pages of relics on their shelves.
To soften my wounded sensibilities, she bought me a Dell computer and introduced me to the World Wide Web.
As nearly as I could determine, about twenty-five of us existed in the world back then who had arrived at a hundred-ten. I figured probably another ten or so had slipped through the cracks; that is, they were out there, but they were so far out of reach of so-called civilization that their numbers were never a part of the reckoning. I’m not talking about those fairytale tribes you hear about every now and again in the Andes or some newly discovered island, where middle age is ninety and the tribe elders reach a hundred and forty. The dairy board and the yogurt people invented those tribes. But while refusing to consider the inclusion of that apocryphal group… still, in the interest of those angels on the side of whom all prudent intellectual pursuit should err, let’s say, there were no more, in total, than thirty-five of us who strode, walked, hobbled, or were carried into the new century-plus-ten of our lives.
Contrary to Foster Carmichael’s invective, truth is I was one of the striders back then—I’d say closer to the truth was that I jogged and at times even sprinted into the young hundreds, and on my worst days—as I approached one hundred and ten—I at least speed walked to the elite thirty-five.
Funny, I don’t remember Foster Carmichael’s first email to me, or mine to him. We didn’t connect often, and between those times I would happily allow him to sink into oblivion, as I’m sure he would me; finding him each time on my email queue was much like discovering a bruise you’d forgotten you had until you pressed against it. At some point I created a computer folder for the emails he sent me, for no other reason than the horrible fear he might reference a previously recorded incident I would find vacationing from my memory—and that would provide him with ammunition he’d not hesitate to use against me.
His first email I kept was dated July 3, 1999. It began brashly enough:
“Keep an eye out for UPS, old man. You’ll be getting a great big wedge of double chocolate cake with chocolate cream cheese icing any day now. I had it packed in dry ice so it will be as soft and moist as it was yesterday when I finished off twice as much as you’ll be getting. Ha! I bet you’re licking those leathery, old lips of yours. (Which reminds me, you better ask your nurse if you can eat the whole thing in one sitting. She might put the kibosh on that!)
“So wish me a happy birthday! I hope you’ll still be around next year when I reach your age. But you know what they say about the big one-one-four! Not many get there. If you don’t make it, I’ll forgive you… ha-ha… because, I’ve heard tell less than three hundred (leaving out the Old Testament), in all of recorded history have gone past it. But you know all that. You’re the intellectual sitting around in your easy chair, your shawl pulled up around your ears, making sure all those numbers you find in some big book on your desk are accurate. You’re a college man, a professor and a poet. Me—I was just a poor dirt farmer. But it was an honest life, and an active one.
“Which brings me right smack-dab up to what I did yesterday. You were probably asleep at nine A.M., but that was when I jumped out of an airplane from 14,000 feet. I wanted to jump alone but they have certain rules for anyone over sixty—or so they tell me. Anyway, I went tandem. But it was still a hell of a thrill—excuse my French. Next year, I will take the one-day classroom study, so if there isn’t too much bureaucratic red tape, I might get to do it solo.
I’d no sooner finished reading it than I tapped out a response:
Foster, I kept waiting for the punch line. Getting none, I am left to say, “Are you out of your mind?”
Well, it was tandem. But even tandem is a lot more exciting than the whitewater kayaking I did two years ago.
“I see your birthday comes up in a couple of months. How will you celebrate it? If your heart can take it, why don’t you try your hand at a tandem jump? You’ll have a fifty percent chance of surviving it. Ha-ha… But what is a life worth if it isn’t challenged? Take Sted-Weston. (I think her granddaughter emails you, too, doesn’t she?) Well that’s the problem, right there in a nutshell. She is thirty-seven days older than me, but because of that stroke two years ago, she doesn’t have the use of the right half of her body, and probably less of her brain (which wasn’t a whole lot to begin with), so for all practical purposes she’s already a veggie. With a last name like Sted-Weston, you’d think she was upper class, but I’ve heard she didn’t go to school even one day of her life. And now she’s a veggie! But because she is thirty-seven days older—No, Murdoch, if I can’t have a life with substance to it, I don’t want to have a life at all. Adding a day to a day and a year to a year, with nothing in your days and it adding up to nothing in your years. You tell me, old man! What’s the use in that? To me substance is testing my limits physically. That’s what makes me feel really alive. I suppose, to you it’s looking up things in all your big books. Well, I guess even that’s something.
“I hope you are well. But just to be on the safe side, pull that shawl up around your ears, to keep the draft out. It can be a killer.
“By the way, where is Fresno?”
Before going to bed I emailed my response (adding it to my on-line journal):
“My dear Foster:
“I am really looking forward to the slice of cake you sent me. Please don’t take it personally, but my nurse insists I forward it to the college chemistry lab—where my great grandson heads the department—to have a portion of the cake and the frosting analyzed. Of course, I’m sure it will come back with a clean bill, and I shall enjoy having it for dessert after my girlfriend, Kristal, and I return from dinner and dancing. Thank you again, and happy birthday.”
Four days later Foster’s email was on my queue. It said, simply enough:
“So where the hell’s Fresno?”
I answered back that Fresno was in the central valley of Southern California, a little over a hundred miles from my home.
“That’s where Fresno is,” I concluded—”now where is my cake?”
Foster Carmichael had been a lad of a hundred and nine five years ago, when I started the circus of folly with him on my email screen. At that time Cora Sted-Weston was thirty-seven days older than he—thirty-seven precious days. Records are made and broken by days, technically, by hours when you’re over a century old.
About a month after Foster’s blowhard e-missive I received, not an email, but a telegram from Esther Bentley, Cora Sted-Weston’s granddaughter:
My dear Mr. Murdock:
It is my unfortunate duty to inform you my grandmother, Cora Sted-Weston, passed away quietly in her sleep last evening. She always had nothing but the kindest words to say about you, whom she counted as her dear friend from America.
May you enjoy many more years of happiness and good health, and if you will, please say a prayer for my grandmother’s safe passage to the receiving Breast of Our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Wishing blessings for you, I remain
So in a heartbeat (or its absence), Foster Carmichael moved up one tier closer to the position I held.
I emailed Esther Bentley, telling her how saddened I was to hear of Cora Sted-Weston’s passing. While I had never met her, the emails Esther wrote for her grandmother, allowing the letters were close approximations of what Cora thought and felt, I knew her quite well. She became as a sister to me. And with her passing, I grieved for my loss as well. I followed with the admission that while I did not consider myself a praying man, I still allowed for a quiet moment affirming to myself that if there were a just Father, He would now be calling His faithful daughter home.
It was Sunday morning, after a fitful night without sleep. I had gotten up well before dawn to go to the bathroom. I remember that, but I don’t remember going from there to my computer; I must have, since at some enlightened moment I raised myself up from where I was hunched over my computer desk. I woke to the sound of bubbles and watched the sharks and stingrays, dully, for a moment, crossing and crisscrossing the screen. I massaged the stiffness in the back of my neck.
From behind me I heard the familiar deep moaning outside and the scratching and gouging on the windowpane next to the front door.
Seventy-eight-year-old boughs creaked and the heavy limbs swayed and moaned in the wind. I had planted the Red Japanese Maple on Elizabeth’s fourth birthday. It was her tree. She had taken possession of it at the nursery while I inspected a rosebush a few feet away. “Mine,” she said in that tone I recognized, even for a child of four, as unrelenting. A precocious child, I thought it might give her some valuable metaphorical lessons in rootedness and nature—or some such rationalizing. Truth was, it was her birthday, and I could think of no reason to say no.
The problem was my ignorance of the growth pattern of the Red Japanese Maple. I planted it too close to the house. It took me ten years to realize it, and by then it was too late to transplant it. Its roots, ever pushing blindly, relentlessly, through the moving membrane of soil, searching dumbly for its source, would be already plaited around and through the foundation of our house, and coiled around the pipes underneath it. So the tree stayed.
Now, on calm days, the twigs and branches nestle against the upper half of the large picture window, occasionally scraping their nails against the surface, but when the weather is blustery, they slash and claw at it while the mother bough moans her weariness and age. I noticed last month that something was not quite right with the grand old lady. The leaves on the outer branches started taking on a scorched look. Many of the branches themselves were falling off. At my request, Elizabeth took a fallen branch, with leaves attached, to the college botany department. We awaited their answer.
I looked through her branches. The sky hung low and gray. Gorged with water, her branches sagged, their leaves dripping; the grass beneath her was soggy.
I heard the key seating in the lock, click a full turn, and the door push tentatively open. Elizabeth backed in and then shook the closed umbrella out through the opened door, flinging drops of water onto the porch. Always alert to the draft she might let in, she pulled in the umbrella and closed the door.
I always liked the sound of the front door clicking shut. More than a click, really, it was a solider sound created by the brass latch bolt snapping, flush, against the striker plate, producing a solid, permanent sound.
The front door was over fifty years old and made of sturdy poplar. Clara had been against it from the beginning, my being a salaried professor, winding down to retirement and—she felt—not financially prepared for it. She had little confidence my two small books of poetry were indicative of a successful career waiting out in the wings. She wanted another hollow core door to replace the one against which our twelve-year-old grandson (last year dead of a stroke at sixty-two), had swung the meaty end of a Louisville Slugger, and shattered. We could have purchased and installed the one she wanted for a fraction of the cost of the solid poplar door. Clara was practical, as well as frugal. Why buy a door that is built to last fifty or sixty years when we had, at best, twenty or thirty years in us? As it worked itself out, my darling Clara would have proved the point, at least for herself.
Elizabeth deposited her umbrella in the copper caddy she had given me last Christmas, removed her raincoat and overcoat, and hung them on the rack. My umbrella was in the caddy, too, along with a cane I had occasion to use once or twice a year, when I was on my feet for a couple of hours.
One of those times came on my last birthday when I was treated to a day at Disneyland. Elizabeth was responsible for that gift as well—she and Andrew, my great-grandson, who had made quite a name for himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter. With half a dozen films under his belt, he had made no small fortune for himself, and earned an Oscar for one of them. Andrew loved money, and loved spreading it around. The seeming bottomless pit of his wealth was underpinned by the apparent limitlessness of his creativity. Writing came easily to him, and he could not even conceive of it ever drying up. So Elizabeth’s part of the gift involved the planning end. She made the reservations at the Disneyland Hotel, and for dinner after a day in the park, made sure my suitcase and hers were packed properly, and the Lexus (a Christmas gift from Andrew) was filled with gas and the tires inflated to the manufacturer’s specifications. Then, her phone call to Andrew with the detailed plans. His plastic took care of the rest. I used my cane that day. By day’s end I wished I had let Andrew rent me a wheelchair—as he had suggested. Vanity!
As I climb into my bed at the Disneyland Hotel, every one of my hundred and fourteen years, bunches up and throbs in each of my joints. My head reels and whirs with all the residue of noise and images—the errant shouts, the terrified giddiness, the mauling and the bawling, seven-foot bears with goofy hats and goofier grins who lunge out from behind buildings and into your path, trolleys with the clanging of their bells that keep clanging long after they have gone—all the overlapping afterimages and auditory blurred rumblings I carry out of the park in my skull and rehearse kinesthetically well into the night.
A slight pressure on my shoulder caused me to flinch.
I spun around in my chair and looked at the face of my daughter sitting across from me in the chair she had brought from beside the kitchen door. She looked puzzled, concerned.
“Lizzie… I was thinking about Disneyland.” And I knew at once that at some point during the tumbling tide of reminiscences, I had turned my swivel chair away from the front door and toward my writing desk and had made myself an Island, one more time, insulated from the mainland. Now, the tide ebbed and I found myself back.
It was unsettling.
And it hadn’t been the first time.
It happened to me at a red light, while I waited for it to change.
Only, I am with Clara. And it’s some sixty years ago. We’re sitting on the cool, damp grass on the shore of Lake Ming, my pant legs rolled up above my knees, Clara’s dress tucked tightly around her legs, our feet in the water. The colors shimmering on the surface of the lake, stirred by our feet, are green and yellow and red. A flock of wild geese rip the blue sky with their blare… and the glare slants off their aqua wings erupting over our heads. We had never seen geese before. They honk and that makes Clara laugh (God! it feels so good to hear Clara laugh). We agree geese shouldn’t make honkings that sound so un-gooselike.
Then, Clara was gone and a car up next to my mine, two of its wheels on the Island, and it tilted precariously toward mine. A man reached across his seat and rolled down his window. Spittle flew from his lips as he shrieked at me that he had waited through three complete signal cycles, and what was wrong with me, and I should give up my license and take the bus for chrissakes! And I was glad I had left Clara behind. At that moment, I made the decision not to drive again, and to surrender my driver’s license.
But my resolve didn’t stop it from happening again. This time at Albertson’s Market, while I stood in front of the downward slanting mirrors and shook the water off a bunch of broccoli stalks.
I am behind my desk in front of my American Literature class. One of my brighter students, Israel, is discussing the hitherto unexplored symbolism found in the pages of L’Etranger, by Albert Camus. As the passion in his argument rises, I sense an integral flaw to it, but I can’t quite formulate my argument in my mind. The concept of my argument seems amoebic, amorphous—and my inability to mold it into congruent shape is picked up by one of the other students, who keeps asking if he can help me. Am I okay? Can I use his help?
“Can I help you?” the produce manager asked me. “Is there something wrong with the broccoli?” The poor man was embarrassed to bring up the subject and he blushed horribly, but why should I be shaking the broccoli for ten minutes? I quietly put the broccoli back, smiled an apology, and left the market.
And now today.
“I thought you heard me come in, dear. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” She drew back and studied me, peering first at my one eye and then at the other, then leaning toward me, gently raked her palm back across the top of my head. “Disneyland.” She smiled, her eyes never ceasing their movement, her other hand joining the first on my head, then gently tilting it back. “Your eyes look tired. Did you sleep well last night?”
“At the computer,” I answered, “and not very much.”
“Hmmm.” She frowned. “Verticillium Wilt,” she said, her fingers pressing here and there at the back of my head.
“My maple. They think it’s Verticillium Wilt. It’s a soil fungus. Gets in through the roots. If it is, Papa, there’s not a lot we can do. We just need to get it pruned back and take care of it.” She paused, then added: “It’s old.”
“Yes.” It was her tree. She was being stoic, I knew. It meant a lot to her.
“Open your mouth, dear.” She peered in. “Good, good, close.” She brought her hands down over my temples, pausing to briefly press and tug at parts surrounding the openings of my ears, watching my eyes. Her fingertips inched down and massaged the glands of my throat.
“How goes it, doc?” I smiled. I held out my hand to her and she put it in both of hers. I knew her fingers itched to dive for the pulse. “Where’s your stethoscope?”
“In the car. How are you feeling over all, Papa?”
“If you like.”
“Older. Not a lot wiser.”
She continued her possession of my hand, massaging the back of it. “You’ve earned the right to own your own thoughts and memories, dear.” Regarding me candidly, lips pursed. “Will you give yourself permission to do that?”
“It doesn’t matter. It happens, with or without permission. I did see you come in, you know. You put your umbrella in the caddy.”
“I know you did.” She patted my hand. “So it frightens you—this dissolving of reality?”
“Not fair, Papa,” she laughed. “I’m the one who studied eleven years to be a psychiatrist. Which gives me the right to answer a question with a question, not you.” She massaged little circles in the meaty area between my thumb and forefinger. “You will come back, you know.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment. Then I said: “Suppose I like it better over there.”
She gave me the classic double take. Then she laughed, suddenly, open-mouthed, head thrown back. All her teeth were hers. Two silver and a gold filling were all I saw. Two on the bottom, one on top. Clara had been a stickler for taking care of our kids’ teeth. Eric had strong, white, straight teeth right up to his death in a car accident at forty-eight. “Well, if I thought for a minute you believed there really was an ‘over there’ over there,” she said, laugh-tears rimming her eyes, “I would defer to Father Anglis.”
For about ten years, until he died five months ago, Michael Anglis had been a frequent guest in my home. An unspoken but palpable tension always existed between Elizabeth and him. It didn’t appear to be a religious difference, though Elizabeth made no bones about being agnostic. If they were younger, you’d swear it was the sexual tension between two celibates, but ten years separated them, with Michael being the younger. “If anyone should have first-hand knowledge of it, I guess it would be Michael, wouldn’t you think?”
She stared blankly at me.
“I’m sorry. I thought you knew, dear,” I said.
She shook her head, her mouth grim.
“It was in the papers. You haven’t seen him here for nearly half a year.”
“Yes,” she said, trying to keep her eyes averted from mine. She got up from her chair and crossed the room to the thermostat next to the front door. “Could have gone to the Vatican. He always talked about it. I was probably too busy to notice.” She brought her face to within an inch of the thermostat. In profile, I saw a face that looked so much like her mother’s—that is if Clara had lived to eighty-two—it made my heart pound. Elizabeth strained to bring the numbers into focus. She had inherited her mother’s eyesight, too. In her last years Clara was legally blind, living in a world, as she described it, of annoying glitter and shadow. “It’s cold in here. Mind if I tap it up a few degrees?” She didn’t wait for my answer. She came back and sat, putting her hands in her lap. Her hands were like Clara’s: long, thin fingers, very white. Elizabeth’s knuckles were slightly more arthritic, but an extra ten years would do that. “So other than last night, how well have you been sleeping, Papa?
I thought about it, considered how much of it I wanted to tell her. “Pretty good, I guess… A little trouble falling asleep,” I added, looking for her reaction.
“But you sleep well enough afterwards?
“Six, seven hours.”
“Good. That’s all that matters, really. Now…”
“Now?” I saw she had some other subject to broach. “Now what?” I asked.
She got to her feet. “Before I fix lunch, I want to ask you something.”
I waited, looking up at her.
“How do you feel about being a celebrity?”
I considered her question. “I think, my dear, anyone who calls it celebrity needs to check his definition. I gained that status only after Izzi forfeited his.”
“When he died?”
“Well? That is what happened, isn’t it? He died?”
She blinked, then stared at me. “Why do you use ‘gained’ and ‘forfeited,’ Papa? You became number one when he died. Isn’t that right?”
“Of course it’s right, Elizabeth. I was an English lit professor and a writer for too many years, though, not to choose descriptive over plain expression. You’re not going to fault me for that, are you?”
She stared at the floor, smiling. “You’re sharp as a tack, Papa.”
“That may be. It’s just too bad this sharp mind requires arms and legs and a body between them to carry it around, eh, Lizzie? So what’s really bothering you, my love?”
“I don’t know. It’s probably just me. Just being a solicitous daughter.”
“You seem to spend all your waking hours keeping score—this celebrity thing.”
“And my celebrity might be gobbled up next week by Foster Carmichael. Okay, Lizzie, you may have a valid point. But ‘keeping score?’ That’s good! So you’re afraid it’s an unhealthy obsession?” I held up a hand when she started to speak. “You think I need a more active life? Huh? Maybe square dancing? I could sign up for that at the senior hall. How about checkers in the park?”
“Then, Foster goes parachuting and white-water kayaking. I suppose—”
“Papa! Papa! Now, hush!” she said through her lush, rich laughter and beautiful, beautiful white teeth. “So tell me, this Foster’s next in line of succession?”
“And chomping at the bit. He’ll be a good one.”
“But the point is, Papa, it is still a competition, of sorts. I mean, you still check the standings, don’t you? Has last week’s number five been replaced by the former number six? Didn’t you say you write to some of them?”
“Email. I get emails from Foster about twice a month. Foster had written to Izzi, before he died. Izzi had written to two or three others on the list. I guess Foster got their addresses from him. I hear about them through Foster. Cora Sted-Weston’s granddaughter used to write me on her grandmother’s behalf. A lovely woman, Cora. She died five years ago. Even the Internet is too slow. Information on websites isn’t updated weekly, or even monthly for some. A few still show Cora Sted-Weston as number four—although Foster has pretty much rooted them out and got them to update their listings.”
“Just tell me you’re okay with all this, Papa?
“But I can’t… I’m not okay with it, Lizzie.” I paused long enough to let it register. “I think I’d have a lot more fun being on the senior softball league—really! Don’t laugh. Or I’d like to try a 20-K run. In my imagination my performance is flawless. But you know, outside my imagination, it’s not gonna happen. It’s just not gonna happen. Given my options, though, I have a pretty fulfilling life. A few glitches here and there. But all in all, pretty fulfilling.”
She bent down and wrapped her arms around me. “Then, I’m going to stop being a worry wart and start doing what I do best. I’m going to whip us up a nice lunch.”
I closed my eyes after she left for the kitchen. I felt good. I had reestablished the natural relationship between father and child. The way it should be, regardless of age, regardless of status. To the child, the father should always be seen as drawing deep and often from the well of wisdom. He should be ever wise and a bulwark of protection for his child against a frightening and often sinister world. This had been lost for a time, somehow even reversed. But now, through some mysterious activity that slipped in and out between our exchange of words, the relationship had righted itself. I listened to her humming in the kitchen. She understood the subtle transformation, too. She accepted it. It made her happy, too. Maybe a little safer.
And yet into all this palpable surge of new confidence a small worm of doubt buried itself. How could I now possibly broach the subject of my hours of nightly insomnia? And not just the insomnia—but whatever insidious force that jerked me back to wakefulness from my first instant of drifting to sleep? And what about my recent episodes of reality withdrawal? She pooh-poohed the notion, blithely, like it was a senior moment, just a little late in coming. But what if I added the ammunition of Clara and the honking geese? Or the produce clerk who invaded my classroom to ask me why I was shaking the broccoli for so long? Would my newly won complacency close forever the door between Elizabeth and myself?
Toward evening, I checked my computer for emails. There were two in my queue. The first was a notification by Spam Death Inc. that fifty-four emails, identified as spam were deleted from my mailbox. The other was from Foster Carmichael.
“Murdoch,” it began. “Remember me asking you where Fresno was? My grandnephew lives there and he was always after me to come out and pay him a visit. Well, I’m finally going to take him up on it. It will be the only time, because he died. They’re having the funeral next Thursday. I’ll only be a hundred miles from you and I’m sure the Greyhound runs from Fresno to Bakersfield. So if you have no other plans, maybe I could stop by and say hello.”
I emailed back to him:
“Foster: Yes, the Greyhound will get you here. But they also have an airport in Fresno. Why don’t you charter a plane and you can parachute onto my front lawn, ha-ha! I’ll tidy up the guest room—that is, if you are more reliable about coming than your cake.” I finished by giving him my address and directions on getting here.
That night I had a dream:
I am standing at the open doorway of the twin-engine airplane. I have my hands clasped on either side of the door. My arms ache with the strain of trying to make my body immovable against the hand flattened to my back. The wind roars through the fuselage. Straight ahead, wisps of clouds are sliced by the wing, going above and below, conforming to the shape of the wing, and on the far side of the wing—the farthest edge of the wing—are clouds and patches of the bluest sky which fill me with illimitable loneliness. Below, seen through the breaks in the clouds, are squares and rectangles, small enough to put in my pocket.
There is urgency, a kind of impatience, a bit of anger in the hand that presses against my back, forcing my elbows to buckle, my chest to feel like its sinews are ripping from my shoulders, until my body pushes through and out and is released from all that was safe and familiar. Just then I realize it is not a hand on my back, but a person is cleaved to my body. His laughter is louder than the icy wind our bodies are hurtling against.
Strangely, now, it is not unpleasant—this sensation of no longer being a part of the plane, and not yet reunited with the earth. I decide to slow my descent to prolong my enjoyment. I bring my arms out from my side and immediately feel the drag against my body. Then, like a laughing bullet, the person on my back shoots forward, his hands over his head in the position of a diver about to penetrate the water. He does a half turn so I see his face. His eyes blaze, his mouth gapes open and I see his yellow teeth, almost smell his yellow breath. He brings down his right arm and salutes me before returning it overhead, speeding his descent. It is Foster Carmichael, plummeting though the final layer of clouds.
I enjoy my purgatory a moment longer, and then pull the ripcord. After a moment of confusion, of disorientation, my body jerks to a stop in one blurred bloom. The canopy stretches behind me, my body parallel to the earth. And in that instant I see the earth. The pocket-sized patches now take on a perspective I am more familiar with—a circus of brightness.
Then, my body rights itself, my feet facing down; craning my head, I see the canopy above me. I have a bizarre thought: that the parachute must have been invented by man studying the underside of a jellyfish. With that thought I am jarred by an odd reverse tug. I look up to the canopy at an electrical network of red, blue, and yellow filaments, popping and crackling. The canopy collapses in upon itself, only to open abruptly, magnificently, propelling the canopy, and me in tow, upward. Again, the collapse, again the sudden opening. I am back within the cold embrace of clouds. Now I hear the whoosh of the air being expelled from the canopy, then the snap-pop of its sudden opening. And all of this is followed by the sensation of being jerked abruptly toward the canopy. Again I look up at its underside, the reticulum of tubules and fibers crisscrossing each other in vibrant, living, pulsing colors. I am so mesmerized by the electrical panoply above my head, I must have lost track of the number of times my body was yanked upward with each new opening.
When I finally do forcefully pull myself away from staring up at the canopy, I find myself catatonic with a new fear. Laid out all around me is the deepest black imaginable. And out of the blackness something whispers: “You make it so. You make it so.” I can only listen. My rational mind is thoroughly rigid. Then, as though the farthest edge of the blackness dips, by degrees a blade of silvery-blue light is revealed, gently curved like a saber sword—creating the horizon my soul craves. It dips more, and more of the blade of light reveals itself. Another dip, a broader swathe. Something else is happening. I realize the more of the light that is revealed, the more the periphery of it curves—as though toward me. It no longer resembles a saber sword, but more of an icy-blue scythe. And behind the constricting blue scythe… black. Slowly, I turn my body in the straps of my prison, the straps of my salvation. I see, all around me, the same black. I raise my gaze and see and hear the same whoosh and experience the jolt and rising of my body, and the brilliant, fleshy canopy stands out starkly against the blackness into which it fearlessly penetrates.
Again, I don’t know how long I’ve been looking into the shimmering beauty of that miniature universe that conspires to pull me higher and higher, farther and farther from what was safe, warm, friendly, an oven of waiting, waiting—for what? For what?
When I bring my attention back from the canopy, I realize I am once again in blackness. But out there, the size of a cantaloupe, hangs my earth—the oceans and the landmasses. And I understand with a deep sadness, the returning loneliness, that it is indeed my earth. I took possession of it one hundred and fifteen years ago. It is of me. I am of it. We are one and yet now, we are separate. I am experiencing what I had only read about before. I am experiencing the black night of the soul. I feel my very soul being ripped from me. And the voice inside me and outside me whispers: “Sadness has no child like this.”
I woke up, tangled in my sheets and blankets, my emerging vision blurred by tears. The moment I climbed out of my bed, however, I celebrated my awakening. I knew the dream was revelatory, with all its larger-than-life, archetypal images. But I wasn’t yet ready to focus on it. After a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, I would enter it in my journal. Later, I might even share it with Elizabeth.
I retrieved the newspaper from the front porch, opened it on the kitchen table, and brewed myself a pot of coffee (Elizabeth had given up trying to decaffeinate me.) Sunlight, filtering through the leaves of the plum tree outside the kitchen window, left a moving pattern across the newspaper flattened out in front of me. Chewing my cereal absently, I skimmed through the headlines, slowing now and then to read an article. I focused longer on an article about a Bakersfield child who had gone with his family for an outing at Pismo Beach, and while wading in the water he stepped on a jellyfish, which stung his foot. I read the article again. Why? It wasn’t particularly noteworthy. The boy would survive, though his foot might be infected. Why was I drawn back again and again to the article? I turned the page, glanced over an advertisement, then returned to read about the boy who stepped on a jellyfish.
After I finished breakfast, I refilled my coffee cup and took it to my computer desk. First, I checked for email. There were no new ones. I opened up the screen for my online journal, typed in my password, watched the blank journal screen appear, put in the date… and waited. Nothing! I had no memory of the details of the dream. It went from being full-blown and occupying every crevice and shadow of my consciousness with its vividness and majesty, to evaporating totally, leaving only an unsettling residue. I remembered feeling only a core of sadness and emptiness and a loneliness as I had never felt before, an experience akin to watching dry leaves, moved by the wind, scraping across the vacant street; and I had the memory of hearing words, spoken, words so profound they would change the world—if only I remembered them.
On Thursday morning, the day of Foster Carmichael’s arrival, I woke again with the dream. I realized at once it was the vanished dream. The emotion, the wonder, the majesty of it remained—I knew—unchanged. I entered it in my journal at once.
* * *
“Well, well, well… you must be Murdoch, a month or so away from being the oldest living human being in the world.” I stood, slack-jawed—not by what was said, but by who said it! Could this be Foster Carmichael? This man was round-shouldered, stooped so much the upper ridge of his spine trembled through the back of his neck as he strained to keep his head and eyes pulled upward to see. He bore his weight unsteadily on his cane. But who else could it be?
“Foster?” I asked, tentatively, opening the door wider.
“You expected maybe the mayor?” He wasn’t smiling.
“Come in,” I said.
Entering, he made little stabbing movements with his rubber-tipped cane against the tile floor until he got the needed traction, then pulled his weight forward onto the cane. After a few such passes, I thought of the Willie Wonka movie and almost laughed aloud. Here was the trickster, Foster Carmichael, indeed. At any moment, I fully expected him to plant his cane in the floor, and take a step beyond it, not realizing he had left it behind. His hands would then flail in the air for a moment, he would begin to fall forward, but just before landing on his face, he would curl up and somersault to his feet—a fitting parachuting-whitewater-kayaking conclusion to the perfect ruse.
But it didn’t happen. And with a sigh he lowered himself into the easy chair I offered him. I pulled up the Chippendale chair, which had been Clara’s favorite, and sat across from him. “You sound like you have news.”
A slow smile spread over his teeth. As in the dream, they were yellowed. “Two months ago,” he started, speaking with difficulty, somewhere above a phlegmy whisper, “Anatole Godot, in France, choked on a piece of steak. They did the Heimlich, got the meat out, but the stress of it brought on a heart attack. Godot died. Now, Alexei Temkiev of Siberia’s number one. But he slips and falls—probably doing the jig when he heard about Godot.” He stopped, smiled, and nodded. “And breaks his hip. A bedsore gets infected while he’s hospitalized. He’ll go within the month.” He snapped his fingers, weakly. “Like that,” he said, “you—number one. Right now you’re just an also ran. Me… I’m an also ran, once removed. But mark my words, the powers that be are watching. As soon as Temkiev croaks, you’ll have to beat the cameramen, TV anchors, and newspaper guys off with a stick.” He stopped. He focused on the window. “Why can’t you live in Spain, Murdoch,… or England? Any country but this. Then, at least I would be the oldest living person in the United States.”
I wanted to tell him the words “oldest living person” were redundant, but I thought better of it. “Sorry, but like the gambler said, ‘You gotsta play the hand you’re dealt.’”
He glared at me. “Yeah, sure you do.”
“I want to ask you something, Foster,” I said, getting to my feet, smiling, “but first I’ll get us something to drink. What would you like?”
“Nothing,” he snapped. How odd! Did he think I’d been toying with him? Still, his reaction was excessive. I must have looked puzzled. “Why don’t you just ask your fool question?” he said.
I sat. “What’s bothering you, Foster?”
“Ask your goddam question!”
“Okay.” I tried to think of an unhurtful way to frame it.
“Well? Just ask your goddam question straight away.”
“Okay… What happened to you, Foster? Is that straight away enough?”
He blinked, and then a slow, yellow smile formed. If the question had thrown him off balance, he recovered nicely. “Well, well,” he said, huskily, “Could the professor be talking about my”—he cleared his throat for effect—“my posture?”
I paused, trying to push back my irritation. “That’s so sad, Foster,” I finally said. “You really want me to admit to that? It would justify your view of the world. Okay, so I won’t disappoint you. I’d be dishonest if I said I wasn’t curious.”
“So the answer is yes, you’re dying to know about me being hunched over, like a comma, yes?” His mouth opened to a big grin, but his lips contorted by the strain he had to put into producing it.
“Only because you have a need to hide behind it,” I told him. “Was I shocked by your appearance when I first opened the door? Yes, of course I was. We’d been emailing each other for over five years now. Not once did you mention being hunched over, as you put it. To the contrary, you boasted about your penchant for living on the edge. You said parachuting and white water kayaking gave substance to your existence, made you feel alive. Isn’t it natural for me to wonder if you might have landed wrong, even with the expert strapped to your back, pulling the strings, so to speak? Or whether your kayak flipped over and slammed you into the rocks? All possibilities. But no… I know the history of your emails over the years, and I know you couldn’t go days, let alone years, without telling me about the heroics of your injury, and you’d have gone into infinite detail about how it happened.”
I didn’t know until now how compelling my need was to vindicate to myself how much I despised this little troll for all those years of empty self-aggrandizement. When I started, I had no desire to tear into him so vehemently, but some ugly thing in me now craved it. On the other hand, as I warmed up to it, and felt the warmth turn into an almost sadistic heat, I found I couldn’t look at him. My heart raced as I ranted on. Yet I focused past him, on the wall above his head, and then, across the room, past my desk to the kitchen door. Only now, after an incredibly long silence, could I bring my eyes, with difficulty, back to him.
He had evidently given up craning his neck to look up at me. His head was down, his eyes closed. I might have mistaken him for being asleep if it weren’t for the thin, tightened line of his mouth and the barely perceptible, trembling movement of his jaw. The exoskeletal shape of his spine curved over between his thighs, his forearms resting on his legs to support his weight and keep him from tumbling over on his face. But every single word I said was true, I reasoned. It was necessary that he heard it. Did he think I bought five years of lies? He needed to know. And I needed to be the one to tell him. How strong my need was to tell him!
His eyes opened, but stayed focused on the floor. “You’re finished, then?” he said in a voice, so faint I wouldn’t have heard it had I not been looking at his face.
“Nothing makes…” He took in some air, noisily, through his nose. “Where’s the sense in anything. Used to mean something.” He closed his eyes again.
“It made perfect sense to you five years ago. What happened between then and now?”
He strained his neck to look up at me, let out a short bitter laugh, and then let his gaze fall back to the floor.
“Come on, Foster. It’s just you and me here. No cameras, no tape recorder. So tell me, was it all a lie, Foster? The parachuting, the white water kayaking, even the cake? Was all of it a lie?
He glared at me, then at the floor. “I did the white water. I did the parachuting.
“Where’s my goddam cake, Foster?”
“The ants got it before I could get the dry ice from town. My God, Murdoch, if I knew how important the cake was—”
“Cake, no… A promise, yes.
“What promise? I don’t owe you nothin’. You don’t owe me nothin’. We’re just a couple of old bastards. That’s the only thing we have in common. So get off your high horse, Murdoch!”
“Well, Carmichael,”—I got to my feet—”it appears our little visit is over. We may not like each other a lot. But you’re dead wrong about one thing. We do owe each other something: Trust—my being able to believe you and your being able to believe me. Being old doesn’t have a damned thing to do with it. Being human has everything to do with it.” Our eyes locked in on each other, for the better part of a minute. Since I was standing, Foster needed to lean back—almost to recline—in his chair to keep his eyes trained on mine, but he seemed to study me acutely from that odd angle.
Finally he gestured with an impatient flutter of his fingers for me to sit down. And when I did—reluctantly, and only after a studied moment—he said: “Okay, Okay.” Weariness seemed to pervade his words. “What do you want of me, Murdoch?”
I leaned toward him. “It hasn’t changed…. Look at you! What a waste of a hundred and thirteen years! My God, man, to spend all your life repelling people. What a waste!” I watched the impact of my words, and found myself looking away from him again—my own way, it occurred to me, of distancing myself from the hurt I caused to register on his face. This made me wonder about my own honesty. Does the executioner close his eyes the instant the blade slips through the flesh? When I did glance back, I saw a thin arm and knuckly, arthritic hand extended toward me. His eyes were tight slits. Were those tears? I stared at his hand and at first, was uncertain how to respond.
“Graham,” he said in a sandpapery whisper. “Please.”
I leaned forward, reached out, and took his hand in mine, resting my other on top of it.
He mumbled something unintelligible.
I told him I couldn’t hear him.
“Damn it, I said he had to push me… okay?” The words scraped across his throat. Then, a deep, ragged sigh had the hint of a sob in the fringes. “We got up to the door,” he hesitated, “with nothing but sky and clouds and the wind hitting me in the face. I tried to tell him I changed my mind, but he just laughed and said they hear that a lot. He said to just take a deep breath and jump. I grabbed on to both sides of the door, but the young man just reached up and released my hands, then leaned forward into my back. I remember trying to scream. I guess I fainted. It was the jolt of us landing that woke me.”
I let the feeling that buoyed up his words linger a while before I said, “Thank you.”
“For what?” he said, with a trace of brusqueness.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself! I’d have never had the courage to plan such an adventure in the first place. It took guts to get into the plane with that mad Turk and have the intention of jumping with him. It took wisdom, though, to realize you’d made a mistake. He should have been horsewhipped for forcing you to jump.”
His eyes were still closed. “The kayaking?” He shook his head, vigorously. “Eight of us on the rubber raft. I just hung on and screamed.”
I laughed as his face, conflicted, twitched into a smile. But still, he kept his eyes tightly closed.
“Now, tell me one last thing: the cake…”
“Just like I told you,” he said. He opened his eyes and gave me a quick glance, but looked away. “The ants got it.” He stopped, frowned, as though considering something. “What I might not have told you was that I got sick as a dog from what I ate and haven’t been able to look at chocolate cake since.”
“It might have slipped your mind.” I laughed, and then I had to ask the begged-for question: “Why did you do it, Foster? Were you trying to undermine my self-confidence? To get me to believe this spunky contender had the energy and courage of a seventy-year-old kid? Were you trying to get me to just dry up in my old age and die?”
He slipped his hand from the pocket my two hands made. “Hell, yes,” he said, “that was part of it. But just as important…” He sighed. “I tried to convince myself I was that seventy-year-old kid. Without my secret life I know I would have dried up and died.”
We were both silent for a while. He planted his cane on the floor between his knees and leaned into it, staring out the window.
It was confession time. “Foster.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend named Kristal, or any other name.”
“Christ, Murdoch, what kind of an idiot did you take me for? Did you think for a minute I believed you? How’d you come up with a name like that? And dance? Skydiving’s one thing, but dancing at a hundred and fourteen? Dancing, Murdoch?”
I smiled and saw him looking at my teeth. “And the cake…”
“You weren’t going to have it analyzed?”
“No,” I said.
“That disappoints me,” he said. “You should have.”
We were quiet a while longer. He stared out the window. Again, I spoke first. “I dreamed your parachute jump, Foster, right down to the grip on the sides of the door and being pushed through. The only difference was that they were my hands on the door. The one on my back was you, only I didn’t know it just then. As we free-fell, you slid off my back like you were on a kind of gurney. And you saluted me as you slipped through the clouds.” I went on to describe the dream fully.
He stared at me throughout, and when I finished, he asked me what I made of it.
I shrugged. “You have any ideas?”
He shook his head.
“Me neither. One thing though… wherever dreams come from, Foster, and whatever mechanism decides which garbled, jumbled-up message becomes important enough to disturb the sleeper’s tranquility, it must keep the original in its file….” I noticed his growing impatience over my obscurity, so I continued: “because when I didn’t deal with it, dream central sent the same dream last night. Persistent buggers, huh?”
“It was a scary dream?”
“Terrifying. Both times.”
“Tell me, Graham—I’m just curious, but did, um, do you remember whether my parachute…” He stopped short, color starting to rise from below his collar and suffusing his otherwise sallow complexion.
“Opened? I’m sure it did. I don’t remember seeing it, but I’m sure it opened, yes, it would have been just as you passed through the cloud layer.”
“Stupid question anyway,” he said. “What difference does it make?”
“I’d sure want to know,” I said, “if someone had the gall to have me in his dream.” I waited for him to laugh. But he seemed preoccupied.
“But to have it twice,” he said after a time. “It does make you wonder.”
“Yes, it does, Foster. It does make you wonder.”
Toward evening, Foster Carmichael was becoming increasingly restless. He asked me to phone for a cab, which I did. Twenty minutes later, when it arrived, he thanked me for letting him stop by. I walked him to the door, and being guided by the hands of the driver, he made his way, ponderously, down the sidewalk to the cab. The door was opened for him; he dropped into the back seat. Once settled in, he did not look back to where I stood in the open door, ready to wave.
So much of Foster Carmichael pressed in on me all at once and demanded so compellingly to be addressed that I’m left feeling I never really scratched the surface of the man. What was his true history, other than being a farmer? Was that even true? Did he once love? Did he marry, and raise a brood of children on his farm? Did he plant a tree for his child, then, long after the child was grown or gone, continue to live the metaphor?
What an opportunity we had, Foster… How we squandered it.
There was one moment, though, while I recounted my dream to him, I would swear our souls touched, and at that instant, as quaint as it might sound, we became brothers of the soul. It was when I described how profound was my aloneness and my deep, deep sadness, looking down at the cantaloupe-sized earth, with everything else except it and the snapping, popping, living canopy above, plunged into the deepest, emptiest blackness. And when I confessed to him the imponderably deep sadness of my separation from this earth, I both owned and was owned by… I stole a quick glance in his direction, and I saw the raw imprint on his face of a kind of spiritual recognition—a knowing beyond all knowing—a knowing that was beyond even his own ability to distort. I believe the recognition of it frightened him. He allowed himself in a vagrant instant to be connected with another human being on too intimate a level and he wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of that.
I did not receive any more emails from Foster Carmichael. I can’t say it surprised me. I even wondered if he were still alive. Might he have blessedly slipped away in his sleep, like Cora Sted-Weston? And if he had, was there anyone—anyone at all—to pray for his safe passage to whatever tranquil harbor in which he, or at least his mourner, believed?
I confess I haven’t checked my standings on the Internet for months. I have no real pressing desire to. No TV crew or newspaper reporter has come pounding on my door, so I’ve got to believe, that—like Avis—I’m still number two.
Elizabeth drops by daily. Since I have voluntarily given up my driver’s license, she has added grocery shopping to her filial duties, which she undertakes lovingly. She arrives in the dying hours of the afternoon, stays on to cook our dinner, and lingers afterwards to visit. She has trouble concealing her worry.
I’ve given up exercise. Even the gentlest walking leaves me aching and weary for days. Much of my time I spend in Clara’s Chippendale chair, in front of the living room window. No Japanese Maple blocks the view. The last windstorm split it at the bough. Elizabeth brought someone from the school botany department over to check it out. He said the Verticillium Wilt had indeed rotted it from the inside. We had the grand old lady cut down and removed. A two-foot circle of splintery stubble marks where she had stood.
Sitting now at the window, I would be unable to tell anyone who or what, if anything, I am looking for outside.
At other times I am at my desk. There I read the masters. When the spirit prompts me, I leave a few verses of my own on the protected screen of my computer journal. My journal has become my touchstone. I suppose I should give the password to Elizabeth—to access it only after my death. What a final blessing of freedom if I could allow myself to become transparent, authentic. Nothing hidden. In my own way, am I really so different from Foster? Will I, too, have the need to start calling people by their last names?
I surrender myself more and more frequently to those episodes that so troubled me earlier. I’ve come to welcome them, eager to bask in the renewal. In their way, they, too, are preparatory.
All in all, I live a pretty decent life. I read deeply, I write as honestly as I am able, I am gentle with myself.
Unhurried, unencumbered… I wait.
Jay Squires is retired after thirty years chasing paper in his own insurance office.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Uneven Zen of Time”
In the stories we publish, we tend to be more particular with very short and very long stories. Short pieces must grab us immediately and tell a complete, yet interesting, story without wasting words. Long pieces also must grab us at the beginning, but while they have the luxury of more words to develop their story, they must hold our interest throughout, and the longer the piece, the stronger it must be to do that.
Many of the pieces we receive about elderly characters deal, not surprisingly, with the theme of death, and we have certainly published many pieces, long and short, with that theme. In “The Uneven Zen of Time,” author Jay W. Squires anchors the reader firmly in the mind of Graham Murdoch and weaves a moving narrative that holds our attention and gives us a lot to think about in our own lives along the way.
Interested readers might want to compare this story with “A Dying Breed” by Oren Hammerquist in issue #3 (April 2013), which presents quite a different take on living to an old age.