Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately. Normally I have no use for introspection. My employment for thirty years, refinishing wood floors—carried on single-handedly out of a small white truck, a Chevrolet Spartan, with the several sizes of electric sanders and the belts and disks of sandpaper in all their graded degrees of coarseness and five-gallon containers of polyurethane and thinner and brushes ranging from a stout six-inch width to a diagonally cut two-inch sash brush for tight corners and jigsaw-fitted thresholds—has conditioned me against digging too deep. Balancing in a crouch on the last dry boards like a Mohawk steel walker has taught me the value of the superficial, of that wet second coat glistening from baseboard to baseboard. All it needs and asks is twenty-four undisturbed hours to dry in. Some of these fine old New England floors, especially the hard yellow pine from the Carolinas that was common in the better homes a hundred years ago, but also the newer floors of short tongued pieces of oak or maple, shock you with their carefree gouges and cigarette burns and the black scuff marks synthetic soles leave. Do people still give that kind of party? I entered this trade, after fifteen years in a white-collar, smooth-talking line of work, as a refugee from romantic disgrace, and abstain from passing judgment, even on clients arrogant enough to schedule a dinner party six hours after I give their hall parquet the finish coat.
But, now that I'm retired—the sawdust gets to your lungs, and the fumes get to you and eat away your sinuses, even through a paper mask—I watch myself with a keener attention, as you'd keep an eye on a stranger who might start to go to pieces any minute. Some of my recently acquired habits strike me as curious. At night, having brushed my teeth and flossed and done the eyedrops and about to take my pills, I like to have the water glass already full. The rational explanation might be that, with a left hand clutching my pills, I don't want to fumble at the faucet and simultaneously try to hold the glass with the right. Still, it's more than a matter of convenience. There is a small but distinct pleasure, in a life with most pleasures levelled out of it, in having the full glass there on the white marble sink-top waiting for me, before I sluice down the anti-cholesterol pill, the anti-inflammatory, the sleeping, the calcium supplement (my wife's idea, now that I get foot cramps in bed, somehow from the pressure of the top sheet), along with the Xalatan drops to stave off glaucoma and the Systane drops to ease dry eye. In the middle of the night, on the way to the bathroom, my eye feels like it has a beam in it, not a mote but literally a beam—I never took that image from the King James Version seriously before.
The wife keeps nagging me to drink more water. Eight glasses a day is what her doctor recommended to her as one of those feminine beauty tricks. It makes me gag just to think about it—eight glasses comes to half a gallon, it would bubble right out my ears—but that healthy sweet swig near the end of the day has gotten to be something important, a tiny piece that fits in: the pills popped into my mouth, the full glass raised to my lips, the swallow that takes the pills down with it, all in less time than it takes to tell it, but tasting of bliss.
The bliss goes back, I suppose, to moments of thirst satisfied in my childhood, five states to the south of this one, where there were public drinking fountains in all the municipal buildings and department stores, and luncheonettes would put glasses of ice water on the table without your having to ask, and drugstores served Alka-Seltzer up at the soda fountain to cure whatever ailed you, from hangover to hives. I lived with my grandparents, a child lodged with old people thanks to the disruptions of the Depression, and their house had a linoleum floor and deep slate sinks in the kitchen, and above the sinks long-nosed copper faucets tinged by the green of oxidation. A child back then had usually been running from somewhere or other and had a great innocent thirst—running, or else pumping a fat-tired bicycle, imagining it was a dive-bomber about to obliterate a Jap battleship. Filling a tumbler with water at the old faucet connected you with the wider world. Think of it: pipes running through the earth below the frost line and up unseen from the basement right through the walls to bring you this transparent flow, which you swallowed down in rhythmic gulps—down what my grandfather called, with that twinkle he had, behind his bifocals, "the little red lane." The copper would bead with condensation while you waited for the water to run cold enough.
The automobile garage a block away from my grandparents' back yard had the coldest water in town, at a bubbler just inside the overhead sliding doors. It made your front teeth ache, it was so cold. Our dentist, a tall lean tennis player already going bald in his thirties, once told me, after extracting an abscessed back molar of mine when I was fifteen, that no matter what else happened to me dentally I would have my front teeth till the day I died. Now, how could he know that just by looking every six months into a mouth where a Pennsylvania diet of sugar doughnuts and licorice sticks had already wreaked havoc? But he was right. Slightly crooked though they are, I still have my front teeth, the others having long since gone under to New England root canals and Swedish implantology. I think of him, my aboriginal dentist, twice a day when I do my brushing. He was the beloved town doctor's son, and had stopped short at dentistry as a kind of rebellion. Tennis was really his game, and he made it to the county semifinals at least twice, before dropping over with a heart attack in his forties. In those days there was no such thing as a heart bypass, and we didn't know much about flossing, either.
The town tennis courts were handy to his office, right across the street—a main avenue, with trolley tracks in the middle that would take you in twenty minutes the three miles into the local metropolis of eighty thousand working men and women, five first-run movie theatres, and a surplus of obsolescing factories. The courts, four of them, were on the high-school grounds, at the stop where my grandmother and I, back from my piano lesson or buying my good coat for the year, would get off the trolley, to walk the rest of the way home because I was sure I was about to throw up. She blamed the ozone: according to her, the trolley ran on ozone, or generated it as a by-product. She was an old-fashioned country woman who used to cut dandelions out of the school grounds and cook the greens into a disgusting stew. There was a little trickling creek on the edge of town where she would gather watercress. Farther still into the countryside, she had a cousin, a man even older than she, who had a spring on his property he was very proud of, and would always insist that I visit.
I disliked these country visits, so full, I thought, of unnecessary ceremony. My great-cousin was a dapper chicken farmer who by the time of our last visits had become noticeably shorter than I. He had a clean smell to him, starchy with a touch of liniment, and a closeted mustiness I notice now on my own clothes. With a sort of birdy animation he would faithfully lead me to the spring, down a path of boards slippery with moss from being in the perpetual damp shade of the droopy limbs of a great hemlock there. In my memory, beyond the shadows of the hemlock the spring was always in a ray of sunlight. Spidery water striders walked on its surface, and the dimples around their feet threw interlocking golden-brown rings onto the sandy bottom. A tin dipper rested on one of the large sandstones encircling the spring, and my elderly host would hand it to me, full, with a grin that was all pink gums. He hadn't kept his front teeth.
I was afraid of bringing a water strider up to my lips. What I did bring up held my nostrils in the dipper's wobbly circle of reflection. The water was cold, tasting brightly of tin, but not as cold as that which bubbled up in a corner of that small-town garage, the cement floor black with grease and the ceiling obscured by the sliding-door tracks and suspended wood frames holding rubber tires fresh from Akron. The rubber overhead had a smell that cleared your head the way a bite of licorice did, and the virgin treads had the sharp cut of metal type or newly ironed clothes. That icy water held an ingredient that made me, a boy of nine or ten, eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another.
Thinking back, trying to locate in my life other moments of that full-glass feeling, I recall one in Passaic, New Jersey, when I still wore a suit for work, which was selling life insurance to reluctant prospects. Passaic was out of my territory, and I was there on a stolen day off, with a woman who was not my wife. She was somebody else's wife, and I had a wife of my own, and that particular fullness of our situation was in danger of breaking over the rim. But I was young enough to live in the present, thinking the world owed me happiness. I rejoiced, to the extent of being downright dazed, in the female presence beside me in the rented automobile, a red Dodge coupe. The car had just a few miles on it and, as unfamiliar automobiles do, seemed to glide effortlessly at the merest touch of my hand or foot. My companion wore a broad-shouldered tweedy fall outfit I had never seen on her before; its warm brown color, flecked with pimento red, set off her thick auburn hair, done up loosely in a twist behind—in my memory, when she turned her head to look through the windshield with me, whole loops of it had escaped the tortoiseshell hair clip. We must have gone to bed together at some point in that day, but what I remember is being with her in the cave of the car, proudly conscious of the wealth of her hair and the width of her smile and the breadth of her hips, and then in my happiness jauntily swerving across an uncrowded, sunny street in Passaic to seize a metered parking space along the left-hand curb.
A policeman saw the maneuver and before I could open the driver's door was standing there. "Driver's license," he said. "And car registration."
My heart was thumping and my hands jumping as I rummaged in the glove compartment for the registration, yet I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. The cop saw it there and it must have further annoyed him, but he studied the documents I handed him as if patiently mastering a difficult lesson. "You crossed over onto the left side of the street," he explained at last. "You could have caused a head-on collision."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I spotted the parking space and saw no traffic was coming. I wasn't thinking." I had forgotten one of the prime axioms of driving: a red car attracts the police. You can get away with almost nothing in a red car.
"Now you're parked illegally, headed the wrong way."
"Is that illegal? We're not from Passaic," my passenger intervened, bending down low, across my lap, so he could see her face. She looked so terrific, I felt, in her thick shoulder pads and pimento-flecked wool, that another man must understand and forgive my intoxication. Her long oval hands, darting up out of her lap; her painted lips, tensed avidly in the excitement of argument; her voice, which slid past me almost palpably, like a very fine grade of finish sandpaper, caressing away my smallest imperfections—the policeman must share my own amazed gratitude at what she did, for me and my prick, with this array of erotic instruments.
He handed the documents back to me without a word, and bent down to say past my body, "Lady, you don't cut across traffic lanes in Passaic or anywhere else in the United States to grab a parking space heading the wrong way."
"I'll move the car," I told him, and unnecessarily repeated, "I'm sorry." I wanted to get going; my sense of fullness was leaking away.
My companion took a breath to tell the cop something, perhaps word of some idyllic town, back in Connecticut, where we came from, where such a maneuver was perfectly legal. But my body language may have communicated to her a wish that she say nothing more, for she stopped herself, her lips parted as if holding a bubble between them.
The policeman, having sensed her intention and braced to make a rejoinder, silently straightened up into his full frowning dignity. He was young, but it wasn't his youth that impressed me; it was his uniform, his badge, his authority. We were all young, relatively, as I look back at us. It has taken old age to make me realize that the world exists for young people. Their tastes in food and music and clothing are what the world is catering to, even while they are imagining themselves victims of the old.
The officer dismissed me with "O.K., buddy." Perhaps in deference to my deranged condition, he added, "Take it easy."
The lady and I were not young enough to let our love go, the way teen-agers do, knowing another season is around the corner. We returned to our Connecticut households unarrested, and persisted in what my grandfather would have called evildoing until we were caught, with the usual results: the wounded wife, the seething husband, the puzzled and frightened children. She got a divorce, I didn't. We both stayed in town; her husband went to the city to survey his new prospects. We entered upon an awkward afterlife of some ten years, meeting at parties, in the supermarket, at the playground. She kept looking terrific; woe had carved a few pounds off her frame. It was a decade of national carnival. At one Christmas party, I remember, she wore red hot pants and green net stockings, with furry antlers on a headband and a red ball, alluding to Rudolph the Reindeer's nose, stuck in the middle of her heart-shaped face.
Parties are theatre in Connecticut bedroom towns, and the wife and I did nothing to make her performances easier, the wife giving her the cold shoulder, and I sitting in a corner staring steelily, still on fire. She had taken on a new persona, a kind of fallen-woman persona, laughing, brazen, flirting with every man the way she had with that cop in Passaic. I took a spiteful pleasure in watching her, at my remove, bump like a pinball from one unsuccessful romance to another. It enraged me when one would appear to be successful. I couldn't bear imagining it—the nakedness I had known, the little whimpers of renewed surprise I had heard. She brought these men to parties, and I had to shake their hands, which seemed damp and bloated to me, like raw squid touched in the fish market.
Our affair had hurt me professionally. An insurance salesman is like a preacher—he reminds us of death, and should be extra earnest and virtuous, as payback for the investment he asks. As an insurance agent I had been proficient and tidy in filling out the forms but less good in tipping the customers into the plunge that would bring a commission. The wife and I moved to a state, Massachusetts, where nobody knew us and I could work with my hands. We had been living there some fifteen years when word came from Connecticut that my former friend—her long looping hair, her broad bright smile, her gesturing oval hands—was dying, of ovarian cancer. When she was dead, I rejoiced, to a degree. Her death removed a confusing presence from the world, an index to its unfulfilled potential. There. You see why I am not given to introspection. Scratch the surface, and ugliness pops up.
Before we were spoiled for each other, she saw me as an innocent, and sweetly tried to educate me. With her husband's example in mind, she told me I must learn to drink more, as if liquor were medicine for grownups. She told me the way to cure a cold was to drink it under. Rather shyly, early in our love life, she told me my orgasms told her that this was important for me. "But isn't it for everybody?" I asked.
She made a wry mouth, shrugged her naked shoulders slightly, and said, "No. You'd be surprised." There was a purity, a Puritan clarity, to her teaching, as she sought to make me human. At some point in the ungainly aftermath of our brief intimacy, she let me know—for I used to seek her out at parties, to take her temperature, as it were, and to receive a bit of the wisdom a love object appears to possess—how I should have behaved to her if I "had been a gentleman." If I had been a gentleman: it was a revelatory slur. I was not a gentleman, and had no business putting on a suit each morning and setting off to persuade people wealthier than I to invest in the possibility of their own deaths. I had begun to stammer on the mollifying jargon: "in the extremely unlikely event" and "when you're no longer in the picture" and "giving your loved ones financial continuity" and "let's say you live forever, this is still a quality investment."
My clients could sense that to me death was basically unthinkable, and they shied away from this hole in my sales pitch. Not being a gentleman, I could move to a new state and acquire a truck and heavy sanders and master the modest science of penetrating slow-drying sealers, steel-wool buffer pads, and alkyd varnishes. Keep a wet edge to avoid lap marks, and don't paint yourself into a corner. Brush with the grain, apply your mind to the surface, and leave some ventilation if you want to breathe. Young men now don't want to go into it, though the market for such services keeps expanding with gentrification, because everybody wants to be gentry. Toward the end, I had so many clamoring clients that retiring was the only way I could escape them, whereas selling insurance had always been, for me at least, an uphill push. People are more concerned about the floors they walk on than the loved ones they leave behind.
Another curious habit of mine can be observed only in December, when, in the mid-sized sea-view Cape Ann Colonial the wife and I moved to over thirty years ago, I run up on the flagpole five strands of Christmas lights, forming a tent shape that at night strongly suggests the festoons on an invisible tree. I have rigged two extension cords to connect with an outside spotlight so the illusion can be controlled from an inside switch. When, before heading up to the bedroom—"climbing the wooden hill," my grandfather used to say—I switch it off, I could do it without a glance outdoors, but in fact I move to the nearby window with my arm extended, my fingers on the switch, so that I can see the lights go out.
In one nanosecond, the drooping strands are burning bright, casting their image of a Christmas tree out into the world, and in the next, so quick that there seems no time at all while the signal travels along the wires from the switch, the colored, candle-flame-shaped bulbs—red, orange, green, blue, white—are doused. I keep imagining, since a pair of hundred-foot extension cords carry the electrons across the yard, through the bushes and frozen flower beds, that I will perceive a time lag, as with a lightning flash and subsequent thunder. But no; the connection between the lights and my hand on the switch appears instantaneous. The lights are there, imprinting the dark with holiday cheer, and then are not. I need to see this instant transformation occur. I recognize something unhealthy in my need, and often vow beforehand just to touch the switch and forgo peeking. But always I break my vow. It's like trying to catch by its tail the elusive moment in which you fall asleep. I think that, subconsciously, I fear that if I don't look the current will jam and reverse, and it is I who will die, and not the lights.
The wife and I are proud of our homemade Christmas tree. We see it loom vividly from the beach below and, stupid as children, imagined we could even see it from Marblehead, eight miles away. But, though we took along our younger son's telescope—abandoned in his room, with all his toys and posters and science fiction and old Playboys—we couldn't make out our festooned flagpole at all, amid so many other shore lights. Our faces hurt in the December wind; our eyes watered. What we, after much searching, thought might be our illusion of a tree was a blurred speck in which the five colors and the five strands had merged to a trembling gray as slippery in the telescope as a droplet of mercury.
My hoping to see the current snake through the extension cords possibly harks back to my fascination, as a boy, with pathways. I loved the idea of something irresistibly travelling along a set path—marbles rolling down wooden or plastic troughs, subway trains hurtling beneath city streets, water propelled by gravity through underground pipes, rivers implacably tumbling and oozing their way to the sea. Such phenomena gave me a secret joy to contemplate, and, with the lessening intensity that applies in my old age to all sensations, they still do. They appeal, perhaps, to a bone-deep laziness of mine, a death wish. My favorite moment in the floor-finishing business is getting out the door and closing it, knowing that all that remains is for the polyurethane to dry, which will happen without me, in my absence.
Another full moment: beginning in kindergarten, all through grade school and high school, I was in love with a classmate I almost never spoke to. Like marbles in parallel troughs we rolled down the years toward graduation. She was popular—a cheerleader, a star hockey player, a singer of solos in school assemblies—with many boyfriends. She had big breasts on a lean body. My small-town grandparents had kept their country connections, and through them I was invited to a Maytime barn dance five miles out of town. Somehow I got up my nerve and invited this local beauty to go with me, and she absorbed her surprise and surprisingly accepted. Perhaps, reigning so securely in our small town, she was amused by the idea of a barn dance. The barn was as big as a church, and last harvest's hay bales were stacked to the roof in the side mows. I had been to barn dances before, with my country cousins, and knew the calls. Bow to your partner. Bow to your corner. All hands left. Women like all that, it occurs to me this late in life—connections and combinations, contact. As she got the hang of it, her trim waist swung into my hand with the smart impact of a drumbeat, a football catch, a layup off the reverberating backboard. I felt her moist sides and the soft insides beneath her rib cage, all taut in the spirit of the dance. Sexual intercourse for a female has always been hard for me to picture, but it must feel to be all about you, at the center of everything. She might have said yes to me before, if I had asked. But that would have spilled her, for me, into too much reality.
From a geographical standpoint, my life has been a slow crawl up the Eastern Seaboard. The wife and I joke that our next move is to Canada, where we'll get the benefits of universal health care. A third curious habit I've fallen into is that, when I get into bed at night, having been fending off sleep with a magazine and waiting in vain for the wife to join me (she is deep into e-mail with our grandchildren and English costume dramas on public television), I bury my face in the side of the pillow, stretch out down to my toes in the hope of forestalling the foot cramps, and groan loudly three times—"Ooh! Ooh! Ooh-uh!"—as if the bliss of letting go at the end of the day were agony. At first it may have been an audible signal to the wife to switch off whatever electronic device was keeping her up (I'm deaf enough to be totally flummoxed by the British accents in those costume dramas) and to come join me in bed, but now it has become a ritual I perform for an immaterial, invisible audience—my Maker, my grandfather would have said, with that little thin-lipped smile of his peeping out from under his gray mustache.
As a child I would look at him and wonder how he could stay sane, being so close to his death. But actually, it turns out, Nature drips a little anesthetic into your veins each day that makes you think a day is as good as a year, and a year as long as a lifetime. The routines of living—the tooth-brushing and pill-taking, the flossing and the water glass, the matching of socks and the sorting of the laundry into the proper bureau drawers—wear you down.
I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach—that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars. Nevertheless, I shave. Athletes and movie actors leave a little bristle now, to intimidate rivals or attract cavewomen, but a man of my generation would sooner go onto the street in his underpants than unshaven. The very hot washcloth, held against the lids for dry eye. The lather, the brush, the razor. The right cheek, then the left, feeling for missed spots along the jaw line, and next the upper lip, the sides and that middle dent called the philtrum, and finally the fussy section, where most cuts occur, between the lower lip and the knob of the chin. My hand is still steady, and the triple blades they make these days last forever.
The first time I slept with the woman I was nearly arrested in Passaic with, I purred. That detail had fled my memory for years, but the other day, as I held somebody else's cat on my lap, it came back to me. We were on a scratchy sofa, covered in that off-white Haitian cotton that was once fashionable in suburban décor, and when I had pumped her full of myself—my genetic surrogate, wrapped in protein—I lay on top of her, cooling off. "Listen to this," I said, and laid my cheek against hers, which was still hot, and let her listen to the lightly rattling sound of animal contentment that my throat was producing. I hadn't known I could do it, but I had felt the sound inside, waiting for me to be happy enough to produce it. She heard it. Her eyes, a few inches from mine, flared in astonishment, and she laughed. I had been a dutiful, religious child, but there and then I realized that the haven of true meaning, where life was rounded beyond the need for any further explanation, had been opened up, and I experienced a peace that has never quite left me, clinging to me in shreds.
Years before, before our affair, a group of us young marrieds had been sitting and smoking on a summer porch, and when she, wearing a miniskirt, crossed her legs the flash of the underside of her thigh made my mouth go dry, as sharply dry as if a desert wind had howled in my skull. Human physiology is the demon we can't exorcize. She was to me a marked woman from that moment on.
Until the wife leaves off her electronic entertainments and comes to bed, I have trouble going to sleep. Then, at three o'clock, when there's not a car stirring in town, not even a drunken kid or a sated philanderer hurrying home on rubber tires, I wake and marvel at how motionlessly she sleeps. She has taken to wearing a knotted bandanna to keep her hair from going wild, and the two ends of the knot stick up against the faint window light like little ears on top of her head. Her stillness is touching, as is the girlishly tidy order in which she keeps her dressing room and the kitchen and would keep the entire house if I would let her. I can't fall back into unconsciousness, like a water strider held aloft on the surface tension of her beautiful stillness.
I listen for the first car to stir toward dawn downtown; I wait for her to wake and get out of bed and set the world in motion again. The hours flow forward in sluggish jerks. She says I sleep more than I am aware. But I am certainly aware of when, at last, she stirs: she irritably moves her arms, as if fighting her way out of a dream, and then in the strengthening window light pushes back the covers and exposes for a moment her rucked-up nightie and her torso moving through a diagonal to a sitting position. Her bare feet pad around the bed, and, many mornings, now that I'm retired and nearly eighty, I fall back asleep for another hour. The world is being tended to, I can let go of it, it doesn't need me.
The shaving mirror hangs in front of a window overlooking the sea. The sea is always full, flat as a floor. Or almost: there is a delicate planetary bulge in it, supporting a few shadowy freighters and cruise ships making their motionless way out of Boston Harbor. At night, the horizon springs a rim of lights—more, it seems, every year. Winking airplanes from the corners of the earth descend on a slant, a curved groove in the air, toward the unseen airport in East Boston. My life-prolonging pills cupped in my left hand, I lift the glass, its water sweetened by its brief wait on the marble sink-top. If I can read this strange old guy's mind aright, he's drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned. ♦