His House in Order
Irving A. Greenfield spent two years in the Merchant Marine and fought in the Korean War. He has published several novels, including Tagget, which was produced as a TV film. His video play, "Camp #2, Bucharest," won a NOVA for the best drama of 1998 on Community Access TV. He was one of the five nominated winners of the Yukon Pacific Play Award for his one act play, "Billy," which was produced for Public Access TV and became a successful Off Off Broadway production. His play, "Entitlement," was produced at The Studio Theater in New York, and three one-act plays were produced there in April 2004. His most recent full-length play, "What Do We Do About Walter," was produced at the American Theatre of Actors in 2003. His novels Snow Giants Dancing, Only the Dead Speak Russian, and Beyond Valor are available from Amazon on Kindle. Several of his short stories have been published in Amarillo Bay.
That's what David Cole wanted to do—put his house in order. Not an easy task for a man who just became a septuagenarian, although he was in relatively good health except for the aches and pains that came and went as harbingers of things to come.
Too many things had fallen down over the years and had to be propped up, or gotten rid of, or thrown out. By God, he still had life in him. Maybe ten good years before his body would begin to crumble. Not a bright prospect, but he was a realist, or at least tried to be one.
He made a list of what he had to do; it was written on a small, folded piece of paper he kept in his wallet. It was his talisman. Several times a day he'd think about the list, sometimes reading it to reassure himself that he had a set of very specific goals that, once accomplished, would make him a free man.
Making and keeping a "to do list" was something he had never done. He could keep his future actions in his head, but the few things on the list were different; they were promises to himself. If he failed to keep them, he would have failed himself, something he had done many times during his seventy years and did not want to do again.
There were only three things on the list: sell house, legally separate from Nicole, and start a new life. He was tired of sleeping on the living room couch while Nicole slept behind the locked door of the bedroom they once shared. An arrangement that he once thought would be temporary was now ten years old. As a result, their relationship had deteriorated into an adversarial contest to see which one could out yell the other. Endurance was what was needed, and he had to admit that his had diminished over the years.
Selling the house was the keystone for his future, but the economy had gone south two years ago and remained there. When he first came up with the idea of selling the house, Nicole, in a frenzy of vituperation, accused him of wanting "to further ruin her life." They were in the kitchen, where innumerable arguments had taken place. He hoped for a rational discussion, but that was obviously not in the cards. A longtime member of Gamblers Anonymous, he thought he had "a full house" when he brought up the subject.
"Don't I deserve a life," he shouted, pounding the table with his right fist. He was a big man with large hands, and when he struck the table everything on it clattered. "Don't I deserve a wife who would truly be my wife, and not something . . ." He stopped shouting and pounding the table, and for few moments the kitchen was absolutely silent except for street noise coming through an open window. Then with his palms out at the edge of the table, as if he were fending off some unseen danger, he said in low breathy voice, "I can't even think of a name to describe what you are to me." And he sat there with his head bowed into his chest, remembering how passionately he loved her. For him it was a kind of religious ecstasy; a beneficent god or goddess existed between her naked thighs. He had told her that many times, maybe too many times. Slowly he raised his head, and looked at her. At sixty-five, she was still a beautiful and desirable woman; and he loved her despite the fact they weren't living as man and wife.
But now somehow things were different; there was now an imperative behind what he hoped to accomplish. Before his time was done, he wanted to risk things that he had always thought of doing: driving cross county for one, or down the Pan American highway into Central America. He wanted to experience living. He was not too old to have an adventure or two, not too old to be loved by a woman. Wasn't that one of the objectives of every man? He left the question unanswered. He couldn't speak for every man, only for himself. And maybe that goal was unattainable at his age. Once the monies from the sale of the house were divided, he wouldn't be a great catch financially or any other way. The aches and pains he felt reminded him all too harshly of his age. Other things did too; his gait was slower, and his vision poorer.
He needed some luck to get out from under and start some kind of new life. But all he had was a busted flush, and that was nothing. Time was his opponent, and he couldn't bluff against it; no one could.
The gambler he had once been no longer existed; though the urge might still be there, he would more than likely fight the temptation and back away. The rush of adrenaline came from other sources, and they did not come frequently. In the past, he lived two lives: that of a professional gambler, and that of business man. They were compatible. He was a print salesman. The money he earned went to his bookie, to off track-betting, and he was always in hock to a shylock. His bookie was Big Sam, who held court in the Famous, a dairy restaurant on Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn, every Friday night and on Wednesday afternoons at two o'clock. Even when he won big, he only saw a small part of it. The rest went for what he called "operating expenses."
When he was married to his first wife, Julia, he was tapped by the Democratic Party, and made a run for Congress from his congressional district. He lost, but those were halcyon days full of the fire and fury that he loved so much. And the women actually came to him. Back then he was a tall, muscular man with black curly hair and intense green eyes. He was undeniably charming, and there were always one or two women available for him. It all came apart when his connection to Big Sam was exposed by a newspaper reporter, who also claimed he fathered an illegitimate child with a woman, Terry Gordon, whom he had been seeing over a period of several months. After that it was a quick slide to the bottom, and he dropped out of the race.
A few years later he was forced to sell his printing business because of gambling debts and had wound up working for a former employee on a commission basis with a fifty dollar a week draw. By this time his marriage to Julia was all but over. There was nothing to hold it together, not even their two teenage children. He had fallen in love with Nicole, his elder brother's former mistress. The intensity of his feelings for her surprised him. He couldn't be near her without touching her, and she welcomed his attention. She needed his protection. He took care of everything; he paid the bills and made all the major decisions without consulting her. Despite his gambling and his business failures, he was still king in his own house.
But that changed almost all at once. If there were warning signs, he didn't see them. Maybe he didn't want to see them. He was into heavy debt with Big Sam and could only manage the vigorish on his outstanding loans. He had no idea anything was wrong with the marriage until one night, just as he was about to get into bed, she said, "Either you sleep on the couch or I will."
He was stunned. He accused her of putting horns on his head. She vehemently denied it, and said, "I just don't want to sleep with you anymore. I can't."
She never gave him any reason why she couldn't sleep with him.
That was that.
Full of anger, David moved to the couch. Their marriage sputtered along until recently when he turned seventy and realized that "the clock was ticking" and that it was very loud.
A sudden crunching pain spread from the back of his neck to his lumbar region, causing him to shift his position. He sat on a high-backed chair close to the window in the living room. From his perch, as he often referred to it, he had almost a hundred and eighty degree view of New York harbor that often held him spellbound, especially in the early morning or the late evening when the sky blazed with the colors of the spectrum that turned the Verrazano Bridge pink in the morning and red just before the sun went down. At night the harbor waters were blacker than black except where the lights on shore splashed them with circles, rectangles, and squares of gold, while the navigation lights from the small boats looked like bugs on the water.
It was his place, his throne, though he knew he ruled over nothing. And that galled him. He wanted something to call his own. As it was, he couldn't truly call his life his own.
He stretched in an effort to relieve the pain that had intensified and now had his knees and legs in its grip. The pain swelled into his brain, obliterating his thoughts and making his eyes tear. This was not a new experience, but it was something he couldn't get used to. That old axiom was true, "getting old wasn't for wimps." But there were times when he was definitely a wimp and let the pain embrace him, though not this time. Gripping the arm rests, he pulled himself up and slowly stood. For a few moments he hesitated and considered dropping back onto the chair. Instead, he took a small step forward, paused, and took another one. Eventually he reached the kitchen alcove where he opened the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of green tea. The pain slowly subsided, leaving in its wake a residue of aches. Nothing he couldn't contend with.
The chair and the window beckoned. David looked at his watch; it was ten past one. There was a whole afternoon in front of him, or at least until Nicole returned from wherever she was to prepare dinner. She never told him what she did, although sometimes she'd have one or two shopping bags dangling from the crook of her arm and that gave him a measure of satisfaction. He could look at her and ask, "And what did you buy this time?"
Usually, it was shoes or sneakers. She was a hard fit.
"Nothing extraordinary," she'd answer, and the conversation died, dried up like seaweed on a rock when the ocean recedes.
But on the days when there weren't any shopping bags on the crook of her arm, his mind had raced, at least in the beginning, across a whole spectrum of possibilities—but not so much now. Maybe it was a sign that he finally didn't care if she had a lover. He didn't have one. He didn't want one. Another woman in his life would only muddy it more.
David knew if he returned to the chair he'd spend the rest of the afternoon there musing on the past, present, and future, accomplishing nothing. He had to act even if acting meant getting dressed and strolling around the neighborhood. At least he'd be doing something.
His recently acquired passivity weighed on him, made simple tasks almost unbearably difficult. He became a procrastinator. Very little that came his way seemed to require his immediate attention, with the exception of selling his apartment. And that he couldn't do until the market conditions were better. He couldn't make them better. He'd have to wait, something he hated doing.
"If I could sell it, my whole life would be different," he told himself. He was certain it would be better than it was.
There were a few prospective buyers, but they turned out to be mainly lookers . . . bargain hunters out for a Sunday stroll hoping to cash in on the down market. A couple of them tried to bargain him down from his asking price of a million and a half, but he laughed them away. His future was locked into that number, and he wasn't about to settle for less.
The chair and the window were still inviting, but he knew if he succumbed to their invitation he'd lose the afternoon. It would go the way so many others have gone— south, wasted, drowned in the nothingness of inaction. Going out would at least give him a change of venue. Give him the feeling he was part of the world, He might even meet someone and have a conversation with that person, or just watch the flow of people. People watching ate up time, especially if he combined it with his imagination and the game of "What if." What if was large enough to accommodate anything he could think about, anything he might be able to imagine.
If he went out, there was the possibility of going to Starbucks or I&N, a local luncheonette. He was known, though not by name, in both places. Starbucks, because of its location, attracted more tourists than I&N and was somewhat noisier.
The possibilities were there; all he had to do was act. When he was younger, he often acted precipitously, never thinking of the consequences of what he was doing. Now, it was the reverse. The consequences of his actions came first. If he did this, then that would happen or a series of thats would occur as the result of what he did or did not do, like sell the apartment and build a new life for himself.
Suddenly aware that he had been standing in the same place, between the kitchenette and the living room, for several minutes, David immediately went to the hall closet, grabbed his coat and cap, and left the apartment.
It was colder than he anticipated, and he chided himself for not having worn a heavier sweater underneath his coat. A stiff wind blew from the northwest. It was not a day for sitting on a bench near the river or closer to the harbor in Battery Park. That kind of an afternoon was in the offing. In a couple of weeks it would be spring. The winter had been exceptionally mild, though there was always a possibility for a late winter or early spring snowstorm.
So David chose Starbucks, where he could linger over whatever he bought for a longer period of time than if he were in I&N. Both Starbucks and I&N were a short distance from where he lived, though in opposite directions. But he could no longer make the walk to either one and had to wait for the Connection Bus to take him to Bowling Green, where Starbucks was located, or to Gateway, where I&N was located.
By the time David arrived at Starbucks, it was just past lunchtime and he easily found an empty table and claimed it for his own by draping his coat over the back of the table's single chair and placing his cap on top of the table; then he went to the counter and ordered a cappuccino and a slice of banana nut loaf cake, though not because he was particularly hungry, but because he felt he owed something for the time he spent there. The cup of cappuccino and the cake were visible symbols of ownership; he could easily while away a couple of hours without feeling pressured by the people who looked longingly at the table he occupied.
There was more foam than liquid in the cappuccino; there almost always was. But the banana nut loaf tasted good. He took small bites of the cake and just sips of the cappuccino. He intended to make both last until four o'clock when he'd consider going home. In the meantime, he was enjoying his outing.
A couple to his right was speaking French. He recognized the language because he studied it when he was in high school and later in college. It was a waste of time. At least that was what he thought at the time. But a language was necessary for an academic diploma in high school, and also to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts Degree from college. French was his language of choice, though he barely got through it. When he and Nicole went to France for a vacation, to his surprise he discovered that he remembered more of the language than he had expected.
The table to his left was occupied by a young woman with blond hair gathered in a ponytail who was busily tapping the keys of a laptop. Now and then she stopped, and, sucking on her lower lip, considered what she'd written before beginning to write again.
Her intense concentration amused him. The world for all its vastness had shrunk to the size of whatever she was writing. He wondered if he ever possessed such concentration. He didn't think so. For him, action meant everything.
That was why gambling was so appealing. If he hadn't gambled, he would have found some other way to satisfy that need for action. Sky diving, big game hunting, mountain climbing—the risk was all to those who did it. He understood that. Even now, years after he'd quit gambling, it was a struggle to resist the urge to take one more shot to score big. Pie in the sky, the lure of the big brass ring; he might have had them. But now they belonged to someone else's desire.
He took another bite of his banana nut loaf cake and realized there wasn't much left of it. Either he had eaten more of it than he realized, or the piece was smaller than it usually was. Buying another slice was not an option—too many calories. Besides, another slice would also require another cappuccino, and he wasn't satisfied with the one he was drinking. It was tepid now and much more bitter. Passing the afternoon in Starbucks wasn't as satisfying as he had thought it would be. He was restless, and didn't know whether he should stay or leave. He was becoming curmudgeonly. He could feel it happening. A sense of dissatisfaction, futility, enveloped him the way a fog envelops the sea and land, erasing it entirely. It was a psychological state a hairline away from depression. And the reason for it happening was the lack of action. Nothing was happening in his life that made living it worthwhile. He was in stasis, in limbo, in a never-never land. He was ready for a new life, but was chained to the life he was living.
He finished the banana nut loaf and took only a small sip of the remaining cappuccino in an effort to make it last as long as possible, lending legitimacy to his possession of the table.
Abruptly, the young woman to his left said, "Would you mind keeping your eyes on my stuff?"
It took a few moments for him to make sense out of what she said, and he nodded once he had.
She smiled a "thank you," and joined the line waiting to use the Unisex bathroom.
More aware of his surroundings than he had been moments before, he realized that the line for the bathroom was very long, almost to the door of the store. It would be a while before she returned to the table. Not that it mattered. He had no place to go other than to go home. No new adventure was in the offing. If he were a young man, he might have tried to establish a relationship with the young woman. She was pretty enough: taller than he first thought, with a svelte body and high breasts. Not a natural blond, he guessed. But that wouldn't have mattered. He would have wanted only one thing from her, and he probably would have gotten it. After all, he'd been tall, handsome, and could be very charming.
But that would have been then; now he was a different person—an old man, who wanted another beginning. It wasn't impossible . A friend of his had done it, married again when he was seventy-two. Started a new life, a happier one than he'd ever thought possible. And, if he could be believed, his sex life was the best it ever was. That was something he wanted to believe could also happen to him. Masturbation was never a good substitute for the reality of good sex.
When the young woman returned, she was on her cellphone, and again rewarded him with a smile. This time he smiled back, then looked at his watch. It was time to go home and nap, at least for an hour. It was the proverbial "pause that refreshes." He was tired as he always was in the late afternoon. The nothing he did all day exhausted him.
David awakened quickly. One moment he was in a dream struggling to find his way home, and the next instant he was awake and shouting, "I can't make it . . . I can't make it." That was what it was in the dream, but as soon as he was awake it became gibberish, wordless sounds of fear and panic.
He shook his head and stretched, hoping it would bring him the stability of reality. It did. He was seated in his chair at the window. It was dusk, perhaps a bit beyond dusk. From the window he could see the street lights and the lights in the nearby windows. The sky was overcast.
Nicole hadn't come home yet.
The dream upset him. In it he was trying to find his way home, but he was lost, lost in a familiar place, or places. He recognized them; they were in other dreams: a wooded area, with stream running alongside it, then cliffs, and finally a dangerous slum. All of which he had to work his way through, but he was never able to reach home, where something had to be done, finished.
This time he was caught on the cliffs unable to work his way down. Exhausted, he cried out. There were tears in his eyes. He was alone, abandoned and frightened, lost in a dream wilderness. But the real wilderness, he knew, was out there on the streets of the city, waiting to devour him as soon as he was free; and he was terrified.
Where would he go? What would he do?
He'd be free to die in the street. He couldn't protect himself; he was too old. The fight he once had was gone. It had seeped away, leaving him where he was: wanting a new life but desperately afraid of what might happen to him in it.
Oddly, he remembered a line from Hamlet,"thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." He was a coward, an old man with dreams of glory and a new life, who was safe at home sitting in his chair playing the game of what if. The gambler's game where there was seldom a winner.
David wiped his eyes and blew his nose. Nicole would be home soon; then he'd turn on the lights. But for now the cocoon darkness was comforting.