If he allowed himself to think simply, he believed he would not die. At
seventy-three, his joints were still good in their sockets. He climbed
stairs without handrails. There were few repercussions from nights spent
drinking in excess. Never in his life had he smoked more than three
cigarettes in one sitting, even in wartime. The body was only a machine,
and his was calibrated and tuned.
Sometimes, though, to think simply was to live arrogantly, and he knew this. There were nights when he would sit at the table in his kitchenette and flick crumbs across the surface, the dim overhead light casting sallow hues on his hands. He would look at those wrinkled fingers and think that maybe his wife wasn’t watching him from anywhere on high.
The woman across the hall, Angie, knocked on his door in the evenings. When he felt good and could offer her a slice of carrot cake from the diner down the street, he let her in. When he was glum, though, he let her call out for nothing. He cracked a knuckle and remained in his chair. She had a family of her own. He wouldn’t let himself be another burden.
One spring evening he watched from the window as Angie labored with grocery bags on the sidewalk. She walked slowly through the crowded parking lot. He heard her climb the stairs with heavy footfalls. She was too strapped for bus fare—if he ever had a little money, he decided, he’d slip it to her. But he knew she’d never take it.
She knocked on his door. His back ached and his knuckles were swollen, though all he’d done was drive his truck to Safeway for a sleeve of cookies and a pack of beer. Now he was halfway through his second cigarette and sipping his fourth Coors. As always, young people had claimed the pavement below. They lived on the first story of the building, apartment doors thrust open onto the lot. They passed in and out, lounged on car bumpers, slunk into a particular unit that was musty and dark, its curtains permanently drawn. It was still early in the night, but Silver Crest Motel started in haste and lasted long. Dale didn’t care. The drugs and the freakshow galvanized him against boredom, reminding him of those early days with Jean in southern Maine when simple thinking came naturally and he hadn’t yet done a thing to harm anybody. They used to go to the drive-in and he would talk to her about fighting, about how he was ready to fight and could knock somebody hard in the head. Jean would nod as he talked through the picture, her eyes trained on the whitewashed wall. Her corneas flicked with the moving images. She’d rehash the film point by point on the drive home. Dale would wonder in those moments how he’d missed so much and even then—though he was young—he could sense that maybe you have to choose a handful of things to focus on, and that right there is your life, a collection of small alternatives.
He adjusted his Semper Fi hat, loosening its snap a notch. Angie went on knocking and calling his name. Down in the parking lot two boys pushed one another back and forth. A ring formed around them, chanting. One boy was tall with a gargantuan reach, the other solid and expressionless.
Angie banged the door so hard the tape holding up a local VFW calendar unstuck and the collected days of the year fanned and fell to the floor. If he didn’t act right, Dale knew he might go somewhere lonesome in his head. He glanced at the calendar splayed out on the dirty wood laminate, all the dates without engagement piling up without meaning, whispering to him of his life’s remainder. He finished his cigarette and lit the last of his allotment.
The tall fighter below flailed. He got knocked on the chin. He spun a dazed rotation. The stout boy approached and slammed a fist onto the side of his head, sending him over. He rolled around and covered his head with his arms.
The post-scrap adrenaline, blood on your lips, one cauliflowered ear, the ocean in your head—Dale wished he could be on the tar and not trapped in his fluorescent kitchenette.
Angie held forth with her pounding. He crushed a can on the floor with the heel of his shoe and it sent pain up his back. The aluminum stood there below, half-flattened. He listened to Angie speak beyond the door. Muffled, she swore. He snapped open a new can and sipped the Coors, deciding once and for all that she could keep her backward altruism or else go spend it on the junkies downstairs, the boys who tied up their arms with the rubber seals of old car windows, the girls who turned over naked on pilled bedspreads just for a hit of something. This was where he lived, and he had long since resolved himself to it. Angie might as well do the same.
“Goddamnit Dale,” she said from the hall. He heard her little boy’s voice sounding off behind hers and then those small fists as they too batted the door. He ambled over, deciding there was no harm in letting Angie believe she was doing a little good. She went silent upon the sound of the first chain sliding from its lock. He kicked aside the calendar and opened up.
She entered the room with a grocery bag, dragging her son, Max, by the hand. Dale stood aside and watched as she walked to the window and looked down at the parking lot. She said somebody ought to call the cops for once. Fighting right there in the parking lot. Dale shut the door and studied the boy, who stood obediently at his mother’s back, one side of his head shaved to a millimeter, the rest long and tangled. Lopsided like that, the kid seemed embarrassed of his mother’s running mouth. He turned to peek out the window.
Dale understood then that the teenagers in the parking lot stood for something in the boy’s mind. They were to be worshipped. They erred constantly, and surely this heightened the allure. The boy was waiting to become like them, to grow tall, to get a few muscles. Maybe he’d think a little about who he was with or where it was all going, but soon the immediacy of the life would take him along.
Dale knew that he himself was only getting older, and there was no point denying it. Quietly and ceremoniously, he decided to allow himself a fourth cigarette when the sun went down.
“Look at him,” Angie said as she turned her back to the window and pointed at her son. She put her hand on his head and jerked it to the side where the hair was long.
“We were at the barber’s because the sign said ‘Eight Dollars.’ So we’re getting him fixed up when I hear the desk girl charge ten. I point to the sign, barber turns around, tells me it’s ten now. Desk girl shrugs. I say, ‘I’ve got eight.’ Barber tells me he guesses that’s eight dollars’ worth right there and points at Maxy’s hair.”
For a moment she stood staring at Dale and masticating a piece of Winterfresh. Then she released her boy with a push of his head. She turned to the cupboards and stacked two cans of beans on the shelf while Dale pretended not to notice. He went to the window and slugged his beer, the boy looking up at him.
“Dale, you have to reset the trap,” Angie said. “What did you do, step on it?”
He turned from the window. As she reached for the top shelf he saw her bluish tattoo, an indecipherable blotch on her freckled shoulder. He looked away.
“And go do your workbook, Max,” she said.
Outside a yelp sounded in the air. Another tussle began. A girl on the edge of the crowd screeched, pleading to one of the fighters, asking him to forget some disturbed idea. Max pushed himself to his toes and peered out the window. The girl’s voice was agitated and frenetic in the late spring evening. Somewhere a bottle broke against the ground. Dale noticed Max’s right foot pivot and his shoulder dip as one of the fighters threw a punch, knuckles connecting with teeth.
The sodium vapor lights jittered on. Dale lit a fourth cigarette.
Now he was in new territory, doing what he wanted for the first time in memory. Always there had been obligations, domestic and tedious. Relaxing into the night, he sucked the smoke and drank the beer, nodding periodically as Angie rambled and filled his kitchen. He and the boy stayed fixed at the window and watched the fight, occasionally grunting in response to the sport of it all.
When Angie and Max left, Dale continued looking outside, remembering his youth without evoking the specifics. There were only the fists and the laughs, his body working blindly on and on.
It was late. His head felt gravitational charges and he sensed a presence float specter-like through the room. From the middle of his beer buzz he greeted her warmly and evoked her name. She’d been dead two months, eight days. Periodically she came through the apartment to look out the window with him, kind but caringly judgmental of the fourth and fifth and sixth cigarettes, those luxuries he convinced himself each night were exceptions to a rule, and in that way they were made old and new at the same time, a deliciously morose combination. Tonight she exhaled and the embers went grey at the burning end. He relit and shook his head, thinking, Jeanie Jeanie Jeanie not letting me live in peace, though he appreciated the attention. He broke the pop-top of a new can and said “Chin-chin” to the masses below as they scrapped.
When even the fighters were gone he watched the occasional car pass languorous and steady on the road out of town. The headlights were there and then they weren’t. He jumped to his feet, gasped, “Jeanie!” and hit his head on the overhanging light. The room pushed and pulled as the fixture swung. Gentle Jean had left him alone in the night’s apex.
He believed he would not die; he wished he would.
He sat again under the moving light. The boy appeared below. He stood under the sodium vapors like a picture. He threw a punch in the air. He kicked the ground and that lopsided head hung down beneath his shoulders, the young blond hair piled over the side of his face. He sat on a parking block and picked at his hands.
Dale watched the boy until the slight figure became curious and abstract. The overhead light feathered on and off. His eyes opened and renewed the image and then again it gently distorted. The scene went on rising and falling until finally there were no more regenerations. No boy, no kitchen, no more days to fill.
If he would not die, he would sleep.