had all but shriveled and rotted away.
was five years older than his wife, and as they approached their
twilight years together - as the vague and distant promise of mortality
suddenly became very real - he assumed he would go first. He smoked,
he drank. She did neither.
was only seventy-five when she passed, a heart attack that she suffered
sleeping, while lying next to him in bed. He remembered that night
vividly. They had talked quietly in bed until the wee hours of the
morning, the light of a full and winter moon streaming through the
partially open curtains, illuminating her face. He remembered how
young the soft and white moonlight made her look; the outline of
her face clearly visible, the twinkle in her eyes restored by the
reflecting moonlight, but the wounds of aging - the wrinkles and
loose skin - remained hidden in the shadows. The sight made him
feel giddy, sort of, as he recalled the past, remembering the way
she used to look, and the way she used to make him feel. They had
been talking about their son while lying in bed, their only son,
their middle-aged and vagabond son who had just phoned them earlier
in the day for the first time in nearly a year. He had popped up
in Oregon, clear on the other side of the country, and told them
he was driving a cement truck, and had taken residence in a trailer
with a woman he had known for just over a month.
nice dear," Horace heard his wife say into the phone, in response
to their son's latest news. His wife had offered Horace the phone,
but he refused to talk. His paternal disappointment had long ago
turned into resentment and a simmering anger.
that morning, when he awoke, he knew something was amiss. His wife
had always risen first, made coffee, cracked eggs, and he would
expectantly wander into the kitchen where a steaming mug would be
placed automatically in his hand.
on this morning she was still in bed, lying on her back. The sunlight
creeping through the window allowed no lies - it displayed the aged
face and white hair of his now senior wife.
her lips, overnight, had turned blue.
nudged her gently with his hand, and harder still when there was
no response. He ripped the sheets off the bed and leaned his head
over her chest, trying to find her heartbeat.
jumped off the bed terrified, and called an ambulance. But it was
too late and he knew it was too late.
took her away on a stretcher, with a sheet drawn over her face,
and Horace was never the same after that.
became chronically melancholic.
first thing to go was his appearance. He always kept himself groomed
via bimonthly visits to the barbershop, and he always wore oxford
style shirts neatly tucked into pressed slacks.
hair became unruly, his nails longish, he seldom showered, and he
often wore the same clothes for a week at a time. He had always
walked with a certain degree of confidence, and exuded a sort of
vitality, standing straight up. He felt loved, loved by his wife,
and buoyed by this love he would walk like a peacock, chest out
and eyes straight ahead. But soon, after she passed, he took to
walking like a typical old man, bent over at the waist, and his
eyes focused on the ground.
state of the house soon followed in its decline. Friends had urged
Horace to sell the house and find an apartment in a senior complex
where there wouldn't be anything to take care of, but he refused.
The house had too many memories, and the scent of his late wife
still lingered in the air
had been a man of routine for all of his life, especially after
days a week he and his wife would automatically pop up in a diner
in a local strip mall at precisely 9:30 a.m. to drink coffee and
chit-chat with other older couples in the area who happened to gather
at the same diner. Horace tried to keep this ritual after his wife
passed, but being by himself made the smiling faces of his friends
too much to bear.
he remained at home, except for weekly visits to the grocery store,
where he would buy Ritz crackers, salami, yellow and processed cheese,
the cheapest Vodka, and prune juice. The vodka and prune juice he
mixed together and had taken to drinking all day long as a sort
of pleasant laxative.
the time Horace had been a widower for about six months, he found
himself practically an alcoholic, usually far from sober by twelve
would spend all day in his sitting chair with the television constantly
on, his sole source of companionship coming from the canned sound
and flickering images of the television set.
he thought about his life, waiting to die.
had regrets, and as he sorted out the actions of his years in a
way he had never done before, the regrets managed to manifest themselves
in the forefront of his consciousness.
man his son had become, was his biggest regret, and as he sat alone
in his easy chair for hours without interruption, mindlessly watching
television, he tried to pinpoint where in his son's upbringing he
had gone wrong.
couldn't find anything, except that he never made his son finish
anything. He tried football and quit, he tried basketball and quit.
He tried college, and quit. And then the draft came and the army
took his son, and took him to Vietnam, and Horace knew he couldn't
son was different after the war. He became distant and started his
lifelong career of drifting from low-paying job to low-paying job.
short, he realized he raised a quitter and the failure he felt as
a result stung through the vodka and prune juice.
he thought about other regrets. He never really traveled. He did
join the Army just as World War II broke out and he assumed he would
find himself somewhere in Europe, but he didn't.
spent his whole enlistment and the bulk of the war at Fort Dix,
New Jersey, as a supply clerk working for a colonel, shipping armaments
his peers saw tragedy and blood and carnage and parts of the world
that they only knew from picture books, and Horace only saw an Army
base less than a day's drive from his hometown.
he told himself and his wife in their infancy of their marriage,
they would do things, take long trips, see the world, and drag their
future children with them. But they never did, save a trip to Niagara
Falls when their son was a small child. Horace and his wife became
stuck in too many routines to find the time or money to travel.
that his wife was gone, Horace thought that maybe he could do some
things, it was just him now, who could stop him? He thought about
getting up from his chair, going out to his garage and firing up
the Buick, and finding a stretch of road that went nowhere.
his bottom never left his chair.
did start to watch travel programs, and his wife had taken to subscribing
to magazines, to practically every magazine under the sun, even
the special interest ones, like Organic Gardening, even though she
never gardened and never cared if the food she ate was organic.
did extract the travel magazines from the daily flow of magazines
that still came through the mail. He would read the articles about
faraway places and sit and daydream about traveling. The unread
magazines wound up in stacks around his chair and throughout the
living room, leaving only a narrow, labyrinth-like path from the
front door to his easy chair, and a similar route from his chair
to the kitchen and bathroom.
couldn't throw the magazines away, they were his wife's, and he
hoped that someday she would somehow come back to read them. And
the magazine piles grew, gathering dust that Horace left undisturbed.
afternoon, late in the summer as the sun started its slow descent,
the rays filtered by the dirty glass of the picture window in the
front of Horace's house, Horace closed his eyes and imagined himself
at the foot of the great pyramids. He closed his eyes and tilted
his head back and aided by the now vanished fifth of vodka he found
himself floating quickly over the Atlantic past the straits of Gibraltar
into the Mediterranean and landing on a dusty and crowded street
in Alexandria, Egypt.
it felt very real. Horace felt the hot and humid air splash across
his face and permeate his body, the heat and humidity intensified
by the exhaust of countless motorbikes and small cars that careened
through the street in no particular direction, the constant honking
of horns ringing in his ears.
found himself walking, walking past a myriad of shops and stalls,
vendors hawking clothes and tobacco and coffee and tea. Horace tended
to linger in front of each stall. From what he knew of Egypt and
the Middle East, he was sure he would be accosted, asked to buy
something or be victimized by the multitude of beggar children.
no one saw him, and Horace kept walking, effortlessly through the
teeming crowd that jammed the narrow sidewalk along the narrow road,
it was as if he could walk through anything or anyone.
the end of the street which appeared like a tunnel shrouded by the
low buildings of Alexandria, one of the pyramids stood, and though
it appeared miles away, its shadow started to creep on the street
as Horace drew closer. Just as Horace stepped into the shadow he
found himself back in his easy chair. The daylight that was visible
before he left had now been replaced by a purple twilight.
stood up, shaken with what he assumed to be a dream, a vivid dream
intensified by the vodka that constantly flowed through his veins.
But his pants were dusty, the dust a clayish color, the same tint
of red that hung in the Alexandria air. Horace felt the back of
his neck, and it was damp, as was the underarms of his shirt, even
though the temperature of the house was constantly maintained at
had never been one for religion, much less mysticism, but his apparent
trip to Alexandria left him shaken, and he quickly found his way
to the supermarket where he bought more vodka to calm his nerves.
The clerks in the store shuddered at the sight and smell of the
dirty and insane looking old man and all hoped he would avoid their
had seen television programs before about strange phenomena - outer
body experiences and astral projections and other occurrences that
he always thought were silly and the province of the shallow and
trip to Alexandria couldn't have been real, he thought, it was just
his imagination playing tricks on him. He had to stop drinking so
next day, at the same junction of the afternoon, Horace again closed
his eyes and tilted his head back. He had been flipping through
an outdoor magazine and studied the pictures of men fly-fishing
somewhere in the western part of the country, men standing in rushing
streams surrounded by the greenest of pine trees, snow-capped and
rugged and noble peaks underneath a cloudless and nearly indigo
had always wanted to fish, his own father had taken him when he
was small and he always intended to take his own son, but alas,
so many routines couldn't be interrupted and every summer would
pass without a single trip to a local pond.
Again, Horace felt his body lift out
of his chair and rapidly float west, following the descending sun.
He saw himself float over cities and towns and patchworks of fields
and hills and clouds and he saw the slice of serpentine blue cutting
the country into imperfect halves that would be the Mississippi
River and he saw the vast expanse of golden earth
that are the Great Plains and just after the prairies ended
he felt himself descend and slowly, slowly land at the bank of a
cool and crystal stream lying in the shadow of so much wilderness.
A fishing pole appeared in his hand, as did a bag for keeping fish
that was slung over his shoulder and he felt like someone who spent
a lot of time fishing, as if he belonged to this landscape of towering
pines and rolling mountains.
confidently he wandered to the middle of the stream, gingerly stepping
on the smooth and worn rocks that rested just beneath the surface
until the water reached his knees and expertly he cast his fly and
stood there in the quiet and felt a certain regret wash away. He
had always wanted to go fishing, albeit with his son, but here he
what seemed like a quarter of an hour, Horace felt a tug and he
started retrieving a trout, thrilled with the challenge of reeling
it in , bolstered by the sense of conquest of man over nature. Just
as the trout was within his reach, his arm outstretched and his
hand open, tense with excitement, ready to grasp the fish and deposit
it in his bag, he found himself back in his chair, in his dusty
and cluttered living room.
time, he was one-hundred percent sure his trip had been real.
sat in his chair, dripping water from his pant legs, and his shoes
and socks were soaked.
suddenly felt very, very sober and his mind began to feel as sharp
as it once was and he wondered whose hand was involved in his recent
travels. God's? The Devil's? He wasn't sure and he felt sort of
afraid of something so supernatural yet so apparently real.
his fear didn't stop him from drinking or traveling. As summer gave
way to fall he would take late-afternoon trips, almost daily, to
places that always made him wonder: Katmandu, the Peruvian Andes,
Mount Kilamanjaro, Alaska, the Falkland Islands, the Great Wall
of China, the Taj Mahal.
some trips weren't so glamorous. He found himself spying on distant
relatives that he always resented or even disliked, standing outside
their windows or in their kitchens, leaning against a counter close
enough to touch them. But they could never see him. And after these
familial visits to relatives he used to dislike for some past and
distant transgression, he found himself liking them, they seemed
very human sitting in their kitchens talking amongst themselves
about nothing at all, not so unlike himself when his wife was alive,
sitting in their kitchen, talking about nothing or wringing their
hands over bills.
then visited his son.
found himself near a bend in the Willamette River, in a trailer
park behind an old and bleak shopping center that was nearly empty
of occupants, save a dollar-store and a laundromat.
found himself drawn to a smallish and seemingly older trailer resting
on cinder blocks, shrouded in sheet-metal, with webs of rust fanning
from the corners of the house and from the bolts holding the windows
in place. He walked to the trailer and looked through the largest
window, the window next to the only door, and there, at the kitchen
table, sat his son and the woman he had called and told his wife
had been a number of years since he last saw his son, and he never
bothered to call him about the passing of his wife. Guiltily, he
realized that he hadn't even thought about his son at that time,
he focused solely on his own remorse and anger, angry that he didn't
pass away first.
son looked much, much older then when he last saw him. His long
hair tied into a pony tail was more gray than brown, he had taken
to growing a beard, and he had grown a large stomach that caused
Horace to snicker through the glass.
his son looked happy, talking to the woman at the kitchen table,
a thin woman, roughly his son's age, with straggly blonde hair.
They sat at the table, smiling at one another, nursing cups of coffee,
the smoke of countless spent cigarettes hovering in the air.
lingered at the window for just a moment, long enough to see that
his son was smiling, in a way he hadn't seen him smile since he
was a child, and then, in an instant, Horace found himself back
in his sitting chair, the flat sound of the television speaking
to him softly as he took in the sight of his living room.
made himself a snack, his usual, of crackers and salami and cheese
and returned to his chair.
reached for the phone that rested on a table, in between his chair
and the chair that used to be his wife's.
Horace answered, nervously, it had been such a long time since the
phone rang, and the sound interrupted the rhythm of his mind.
was a pause on the other end.
I didn't expect you to answer the phone. How are ya'?"
good, good. Say, today, this afternoon, I found myself thinking
about you, it was kind of strange, but I felt like you or Mom were
watching me,,, so I'd thought I'd call,,, say hi, you know. Is Mom
took a deep breath and searched his table for a glass of vodka and
prune juice. He grimaced when he only found a clutter of empty glasses
surrounding the television's remote control.
took another deep breath and held back an avalanche of tears, "Listen,
about your mother
Horace told his son, his one and only son, something he should have
known months ago. And as it all sunk in, and as Horace explained
himself, why he failed to call, it seemed a sort of peace had been
reached, between him and his son.
cried for a while, together, over the phone, and Horace, hearing
his son's tears, remembered the child his son used to be, and he
felt awash in tenderness, and the certain contempt he had for his
son for so many years started to drain away, as if the contempt
was mercury in a thermometer, and the temperature fell way below
talked and cried for nearly a quarter of an hour, and as they hung
up, Horace felt he may never talk to his son again,,, he wanted
to say "I love you", but couldn't.
care of yourself son," Horace said.
you too Dad," replied his son.
one thing, will ya'?"
sure Dad, what?"
to live your life without regret, because let me tell ya', regrets
will eat you up when you get old, when you're waitin' to die."
that was that.
didn't travel for a while after visiting and talking with his son,
that journey and conversation left him too emotionally drained,
but his soul started to stir again on Veteran's Day, November 11.
had always been jealous of his peers, the men he worked with, the
men his age who haunted the coffee shop. They had all served in
the War and had wounds - emotional or physical - to show for it.
too, wished he had contributed more directly in the war, rather
than remaining stateside. He too, enjoyed the hometown heroes welcome
that all his friends did when the war was over.
he felt like a fraud, and the chest of his ribbon-less uniform stuck
out like a sore thumb as he paraded down Main Street one sunny afternoon
in 1945 in a bath of confetti thrown from the second story windows
that stood anonymously over the storefronts of his hometown.
began to think,,, if he could travel anywhere in the world while
in his living room, then maybe he could go back in time
rushed to the kitchen, poured himself a tall glass of vodka and
prune juice and returned to his chair, contemplating the possibilities.
sat for an hour or so, salivating at the possibility of traveling,
across time and space, and wondered, why not?
phone rang abruptly and roused him from his fantasy, his fantasy
of holding a rifle in his hand, grenades and shrapnel buzzing past
huh, hello?" Horace stammered.
was answered in silence.
Horace continued, wondering if his son was calling again.
my dear," a soft and familiar and feminine voice answered,
though Horace couldn't identify it readily.
careful what you wish for." The sweet, and syrupy voice continued.
who is this?" Horace asked, in a frightened voice he was embarrassed
you soon,,," and the voice trailed off.
did recognize the voice, but he couldn't be sure. It sounded like
his wife, but not in the voice she had before she passed away. It
was her long ago voice, the voice she had the first time they met,
dancing close together so many starry nights ago by the long-vanished
band shell in the town square.
phone call disconcerted Horace, but not greatly, he drank more vodka
and closed his eyes, and drifted away.
felt himself drifting, but instead of drifting across the globe,
he felt himself drifting past memories, memories in reverse order,
memories of his wife, his job, his career, of his son, and the images
of memories became a blur, a rapid blur until he found himself standing
along the side of a snow covered road, shoulder to shoulder with
two young men dressed in army green, walking timidly and slowly
along the open road, walking towards the specter of a village looming
ahead of them, the twilight silent save the quiet footfalls of Horace
and his two fellow soldiers, their heads constantly turning in an
anxious and furious arc.
saw a sign, just as they approached the village. Saint-Vith, the
sign read, and Horace knew from history that he was in the Ardennes
Forest, in the southeast corner of Belgium.
Battle of the Bulge.
studied himself. He no longer felt like the crooked man burdened
by age and affliction and sadness. He was his twenty-three year
old self again, thin, alert, strong, and he felt rugged and handsome,
like a movie star in an old black and white war movie.
he was actually fighting, in a war, earning the adoration he had
received so long ago.
his pride was short-lived.
figure camouflaged in white came from behind an ancient and bare
oak tree, the branches laden with snow. Horace wouldn't have seen
him, except for the flare of the gun as many bullets fired, striking
his two companions, somehow missing Horace.
fell forward as his two fellow soldiers fell backward and he spotted
the soldier, and judging by the shape of the helmet it was a German
soldier, just ten yards away, readying to fire again.
aimed his rifle, a rifle he had no clue on how to use, but recalling
movies, he squinted his eyes shut, rested the butt of the rifle
against his shoulder and pulled the trigger, hoping it would fire.
it did, hitting the German soldier in the ankle, causing the soldier
to fall on the ground.
Horace hopped to his feet and ran to the soldier, thinking he had
killed the German. But he didn't. As Horace stood over the very
much alive German he knew he did something wrong.
German soldier was very fair of complexion, very young looking,
and looked, to Horace, very frightened.
Horace realized the soldier was still alive, it was too late, the
soldier emptied the bullets of his rifle into Horace's chest, just
as Horace stood a few feet from him, standing over the soldier who
was merely bleeding from the ankle.
pain of the bullets ripped through Horace's chest and stomach like
so many hot knives hacking away at his flesh.
didn't remain in Saint-Vith long enough to endure too much pain.
he felt himself drift out of consciousness, he expected to wake
up in his easy chair, in the middle of his dusty and cluttered living
room, a glass of vodka waiting at his side.
he didn't return to his chair.
found himself laying on his back in total darkness, his head resting
on a velvety pillow. He tried to stand up, but couldn't. He realized
he was in some kind of box, with no room to move.
same Veteran's Day, a lady, planting flowers among the homogenous
and unremarkable headstones of the state's veteran's cemetery, could
have sworn she heard a piercing scream from somewhere beneath the