At his age, if you can feed yourself and make it to the bathroom in time, you've got 'em impressed, accomplished something worthy of applause. Like being a baby all over again. Congratulations. You've made it, arrived full-circle, alpha and omega, uroboros. Hell, if you're still breathing, even with the assistance of tank and tube, you're entitled to the small applause due the dazed, glassy-eyed dumb-luck survivor of any random catastrophe: a shake of the head, a tear in the eye, a grudging respect. Even your most stone-hearted enemy must reluctantly accede, "That's one tough old bird." Just keep going, somehow, that's all you need do, like a watch found at the bottom of a drawer, inexplicably still ticking.
Bill, at ninety-one, is still ticking. But he's doing a lot more than just breathing, feeding, making it to the toilet before disaster strikes. He's still shuffling himself to his writing desk, as if it matters. We imagine it's a shuffle. Or some such chuggingly similar locomotive verb. We surely don't imagine him striding urgently, or even purposely; old men don't have a purpose. We don't imagine him bounding. God forbid, bounding. It's been a long time since he's bounded anywhere; in fact, it's difficult to imagine that he would ever have bounded anywhere. He's just not the bounding type. Pray tell, looking back, what would be worth the bounding?
No…in those black plastic backless slippers that old men seem to favor, he scuffs, sipping from a second mug of black coffee, muttering, in shabby sweater. He makes his way after his old man's breakfast—unbuttered toast, the surplus char scraped off with a butter knife. God-willing and the glucose don't rise, a smear of marmalade. If not, some sort of protein-rich nut spread. At his age, you must beware of diverticulitis. You must beware of everything. A bit of untacked rug can fell you like a lightning bolt from Olympus. There's a glass of juice, perhaps, for swallowing the usual palmful of pills and vitamins. By then, he's already had it up to here.
Having reached the desk, breathless, without incident, he rolls the chair back, feels the customary twang traveling shoulder-chest to rib to small-of-back, the 9.30 express, as he likes to call it, and, after various supplementary geriatric adjustments and preparations required to appease a finicky skeleton there is no pleasing, he sits down at last with a great muted sigh. The heart does its thing there in his chest, looking for its rhythm like a conductor having lost his place, frantically riffling pages in a musical score, the orchestra silent with consternation. Bill, too, waits, but patiently, a scarred whale rolling on the surface of the ocean, gathering its breath for another plunge toward the abyss.
One of these days Wikipedia will record the fact that he has passed away. Passed away. Now there's an asinine expression. Passed what? To where? Died. Croaked. Kicked the bucket. Even shook off this mortal coil—all are better. His passing won't go entirely unnoticed, but nearly, if you were to compare it to the encomiums of grief to be excreted upon the passing of a literary colossus such as James Patterson, just to use a single nauseating for instance. When people kick it after eighty, there's a comfort taken by the survivors—so long as they themselves aren't yet eighty—in conceding that, at the very least, the deceased wasn't cheated out of their share of years. "You couldn't ask for much more," they nod understandingly to each other. "After all, no one lives forever." They say this as if to imply that it somehow makes the death less tragic, that it in some slant way mitigates the loss, that less is lost if lost later. If a Ming vase is dropped by an orangutan or a Botticelli is burnt to ashes in fast-food grease fire are we any less impoverished for the fact of them having lasted five hundred years already? Well, it's something to think about. Or not. It's your call. Along with that other popular bromide: "He went quick. At least he felt no pain." And how the hell, Bill wondered, they knew anything of that? How did anyone, until they'd "passed away" themselves, know with such authority just how quickly the consciousness takes to dissipate and at what level of discomfort. What if the experience were the psychological equivalent of being torn apart alive mid-air by ravenous birds? The imagination can be a dangerous thing. It's probably better most people were never permitted to get their hands on one.
Bill starts the machine and waits for it to wake itself up and stepinfetchit whatever was the last thing he was working on. These days its memory far surpasses his. Ah, here it is, a book of stories, each one more stark and depressing than the one before, something Beckett might have written if Beckett had ever been more attached and touched by the world around him and had been given to retain a faith in words at eighty instead of erasing them until he was writing in Morse code. You might think after all these years Bill would have mellowed, grown softer, fonder of the past, of the human species, of himself even, of all that he will sooner now than later pass when he passes away. But Bill has never been a man liberal with sentiment, never willing to turn a blind eye, never one to soft-soap, to forgive and forget, and other humanistic feel-goodisms, not Bill, not in his fiction, anyway. In his life…well, that is more or less still a closed book.
Now, after ninety-odd years, looking over the precipice of oblivion, you imagine he must sometimes wonder "will I never die?" This in spite of the unexplained aches and out-of-the blue pains so regular they've assumed a kind of status quo, seem almost normal, something like a second health. Old age can be experienced like the decay of a radioactive particle marked in a series of half-lives a thousand years each. Will it ever entirely disappear? Still, in spite of paradox (see Zeno) he knows it must end sometimes. Not that he's showing any nostalgia for the party nor for the company. He's just as furious as ever. Maybe even more so, if that is possible.
Oh, it's possible.
He reads a few paragraphs from the day before or was it the day before that in order to refresh and update his own memory as to just how angry he might have been.
Sex is a consolation. Art is a consolation. Photography, literature—the re-creation and representation of the world through the manipulation of language, light, and shadow. One thinks of that other great misanthrope, Schopenhauer, who found a similar comfort, if not a justification, in art when it came to enduring the unasked for indignity and stupidity of life. "I am not a misanthrope," Bill will counter, but none too vigorously. He does nothing "too vigorously" nowadays. He's learned to spread things out, thin as pate. Vigor must be conserved, like fuel, in an oil crisis. You don't cross the desert, you don't reach ninety heedlessly wasting resources. "What I don't do is suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. Besides, I've had a wife for decades. Schopenhauer had only poodles."
What is easy to miss is the humor. In the humor, there is the humanity that one might otherwise think is absent. It's just that the humor is so harsh at times and it spares no one. "The whole goddamn thing is a comedy of terrors," you imagine him grumbling, rubbing that pain, a familiar former tenant, almost family now, having returned for another two weeks, renting space in his lower left side and wreaking havoc.
This book, he knows, might very well be his last. At ninety-one, everything might be the last: the last nap, the last cruller, the last scratch. Fools think that's the way to live a fuller, more intense life; it is not—that's the way to paralyze yourself with terror and apprehension. If you knew you would die tomorrow, what idiot would use the time to write a book? Better to go on like you have another twenty years of tomorrows. Better not to think of it at all.
His eyes are occluded now, previously so gimlet bright and mischievous, or so he'd been told, read them described in interviews recorded by some adoring and adorable MFA candidate. Most of them now middle-aged, discouraged, alcoholic, not so adorable anymore. Well, what of it, that's life. And of life, you can't tell how much of what he sees is still outside and how much is now inside of him. He can't either. That's the writing life, kids. He holds his spotted fist to his mouth and coughs, something rattles around down there, tasting poisonously sour, something not to be spat up. What doesn't kills us tortures us longer.
He settles into his chair for the long haul. Or at least the remains of the morning. He slowly turns what he imagines a kind of dial inside his head, the red needle passing through storms of static until he finds the signal, always relieved to find it's still there, broadcasting from an undisclosed location. After all this time, it's hard to imagine that one day it will vanish entirely. Lost at sea, he'll be then. Like all the rest at the end. Bobbing alone in the cold dark water, waiting for the sharks to grab his legs and pull him under. A moment of panic at the thought of that.
Then his fingers start moving blindly over the keys weaving a kind of net out of nothing at all.
We fear for our lives, we do, we must,
but not half so much as our lives fear us.