Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The mooring lines creaked with strain as the ship leaned away from the dock. The afternoon sea wind drove long translucent ripples up the harbor’s main channel, and pennants bearing the name SS Catalina whipped back and forth on short poles beside the gangway. The wind blew the old man’s hair where he stood silent in the line of high-spirited tourists. He ran one hand over his face, already doubting what he had undertaken, tired from standing in the sun. When the chain was dropped, he handed his ticket into the vacuum of a steward’s inattention, followed the others into the lounge, and sat down with a sigh of relief.
He had told his neighbors at the condominiums that this would be a long vacation, an idle visit to the island of his childhood. Sometimes when he was telling them he had believed it. But in the long nights when he lay sleepless in the small apartment, staring at the low ceiling above his bed, he would run his hands carefully over his ageing body, searching. He could detect the slow growth of the tumor the doctors could not take out. It was ten years since his heart attack. The old piece of German shrapnel still sat in his weakening liver.
Apprehensive, he tried sometimes to recapture the easy idea of death he had in his youth. Solutions to many things had seemed simple to him then. If the war didn’t get him he would go back to the island when he was old. He would leave no messages. He had imagined himself dying in the hills somewhere above the sea on the far side, stoic and free as an Indian. And with youthful ease, he had embellished, visualizing his body somehow buried on that spot, and in the best Omar Khayyam style, a wild rosebush planted over him.
At 75, the fantasy had gone and his fear was growing. He was alone with it. His close friends, the few who had really known him, were gone. In these old man’s years that slipped past and around him with such disconcerting speed, he had received news of the deaths one by one: friends, a son, his ex-wife. Clearly now, the drama of his own future must be reduced to a single, upcoming last scene.
Embarrassed by his own hopefulness, he read stories of reincarnation. He glanced through the books of the world’s religions. He had never been religious. He mistrusted the rhetoric. But sleepless in the dark, his mind probed for the possibilities that might lie there. In his youth he had been sure there could not be anything beyond death to know and he rarely thought more about it.
Now, in the tiny bathroom mirror, he traced the bone under the sagging flesh. He examined the conceits that had always sustained him. He had been an artist once, an intellectual. For most of his life he had felt above the people around him, a better man.
“Better for whom?” he asked himself now, “For what?” Daily the former image slipped away, leaving him humbled, painfully open. There were mornings when he woke up and for brief moments could not remember who he was.
He had decided to go back to the island. He would settle in somewhere and try to recapture some sense of himself. He would write down the story of his life. However he could, he must fight back this disintegration.
Across an expanse of ocean glittering with the conflict between wind and water, the Catalina ferry moved stolidly. The white hull cleaved a broad path over the sliding blue energy of the sea and left behind a highway of boiling white. Every jolt of ship against sea raised a cacophony of reflected light. And above the wake two seagulls rode the air, hopeful, with only a slight occasional shift in feathers, a dip and rise in the steady glide, to show the effort of balance.
An hour short of Catalina’s harbor, waking from a doze, the old man stood abruptly, as if suddenly remembering an appointment he had missed, and picked up his coat and drawing tablet. No one looked up as he made his way back through the disorder of the lounge. It was several years since he had discovered he was becoming invisible, no more than a thickening of space to be avoided on sidewalks. Youth, as he well remembered, could not afford to believe in old age. He reached the door to the deck and opened it with effort.
Beyond, the wind caught him in the face, cold and salt, but it was the sea that took his breath away. Long streamers of spume were running, angled across the ferry’s prow. Near the horizon, beneath the late sun, they turned into spinners of gold. The old man hugged the rail, mute with joy the ocean had always stirred in him.
He found a sheltered place on the aft deck, sunny and nearly windless, and pulled one of the deck chairs to it. For awhile he worked on sketches of the never-tiring gulls, lines and shadow that caught more of motion and sunlight than the substance of the birds themselves. He still had skill. But lately it gave him little satisfaction. He let the tablet rest in his lap and closed his eyes. Again he slept.
He dreamed of moving waves. But in his dream it was a quieter sea. The slow waves running toward the barrier of a distant cliff were slick with silver under a gray sky. Nearing the cliff they swelled and became distinct, ominous in their ending, until they reared steeply against an outer reef and crashed into their forward motion. But their run was not finished. In a lagoon beyond the dreamed reef the ground fell away again. The waves and the silence reformed. Landing light in the deepwater cove, carrying nothing, they dissolved into the rim of the sea.
As the ferry came into the lee of Avalon Harbor, the last of the sunset still shaped its hills in faint light. In the lounge the old man repacked his belongings. The ship reversed engines, eased against the pier with a soft bump, touched home.
Letting the crowd of his shipmates go ahead of him, he picked his way over the dark, slatted boards of the pier, breathing deeply the familiar scents of sun-warmed tar and frangiapani. The front strand cheered him into nostalgia with its row of frivolous little stores, its flagrant tourism. With great interest he walked down the main street. Things had changed, but not much. The street was still paved with brick, lined with palm trees and flowering bougainvillea. He looked into the windows filled with displays of suntan lotion and beach hats and postcards.
At a sidestreet near the end he turned left toward his motel. A brusque middle-aged woman greeted him there, looked up his reservation, showed him his room.
He found he liked the room, something that rarely happened to him in motels. The walls were of wood, the carpet clean and unworn, the furniture old-fashioned. The window at the back was edged outside with hibiscus and opened away from the lights and noise of the street. He felt suddenly exhausted, and could not think why. But he unpacked his things. He got out the blue notebook he had bought for his memoirs and set it neatly on the desk beside an expensive new pen. He hung up a suit and went into the bathroom for a shower. When he came out he dressed slowly, trying to feel some hunger for the dinner he felt he should eat. But his stomach felt sluggish and flirted with nausea. He lay back on the bed, and just to rest them a moment, closed his eyes. Immediately, his body relaxed into a deep sleep.
He was undisturbed by the occasional cars in the motel courtyard. He slept through the noisy arrival of the people in the next room. Slowly Avalon shuttered itself against the night. People went home. Lights went out. In that block only the light from his room stayed on, lighting the crimson flower of the hibiscus beside the window, burning into his face.
It was just past midnight when he came awake and opened his eyes. The unfamiliar ceiling loomed over him. A picture of a schooner in a storm hung on the opposite wall. He had no idea where he was. Close to panic he sat up on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, until little by little the present situation slipped back into his mind. His thumping heart eased. But when he looked up, the strange room was comfortless. Why had he come here? In a cresting wave the fear of death rose in him. Nothing would save him from this. Every day he was slower, weaker. When his death came he would no longer exist.
How could it be that he would no longer exist?
He stared at the blank, black eye of the window and his own frightened face looked back at him. Beyond it night pressed against the glass, a void waiting.
He reached out abruptly and turned out the lamp. Let him face his fear now while he still had the strength! Does old age make you a child again, he thought, as well as a fool? Goddamn helpless little boy wishing your mother would come. But there was no mother anymore. No help. He was alone and death sat up ahead of him like a spider in a web.
He tried to turn fear into anger but it was weak in the dark.
Slowly, piece by piece, the room was coming back to him. He looked up at the window, now the brightest part. His eye caught the single flower outside and followed it to a whole bush that thrived beyond, reflecting moonlight. He went over, still shaky, shoved the window up hard, and leaned against the sill.
The landscape came to meet him. Out of the sea at his back the moon had risen high in the sky, softly filling the whole valley with its light. With the lightbulb in the room extinguished, space opened like a dancer’s arms and shining lines of moonlit eucalyptus etched back into the valley. Other houses stood beneath the trees, here and there a light. As if it were easier in the dark, the smell of flowers came smoothly, without interruption, and the near bushes were intricate with silver and black and the small sounds of crickets. His fear went out the window with his gaze and did not come back.
When he turned back into the room he found the dark no longer pummeled it. With the light off and the window open it had become part of the valley. He left the light off and sat down on the edge of the bed, oddly peaceful, staring at the dim backs of his hands. When tears rose suddenly, he lay back on the bed, confused between self-pity and this strange tranquility. He knew he would not be able to sleep. Pulling his coat off the back of the chair, he went out into the night.
The streets were deserted, with only the subdued neon of two late-night bars and a restaurant still visible between the stalks of palm trees. He headed for one of the bars; he wanted to be near other people.
He found, looking around him as he went, that everything gave him unaccountable pleasure. For a long moment, outside the door of a Spanish-styled bar, he stood with his best ear turned toward the harbor and listened to the clink of rigging moving in the night breeze. Once inside the soft-lit room with a drink in front of him, perversely, he tried to remember his loneliness. But this was habit. His happiness grew in spite of himself, a wave with its own mysterious momentum. Tomorrow he would drive up into the hills he had hiked as a boy. He would start the biography in the afternoon.
When he left the bar an hour later, he was surprised to find a middle-aged woman huddled outside, weeping in alcoholic sorrow. On impulse he told her he would help her home. She was confused, disarrayed.
“What?” she said. “What?” But when he took her arm, because he was so old, she let herself trust him.
They made a slow parade. The woman was very drunk and she stumbled against him often. He fought a growing weakness in his own legs to keep her steady on hers. Four blocks past the bar, she gestured to a small shuttered house. He turned in with relief and smiled vaguely into her thank-you’s and good-night’s. When at last she shut the door he made his way out to the curb and sat down hard on a bench. Unusual weakness quivered through all the muscles of his body and he chastised himself for overdoing it. But still, as he started back to the motel, his happiness held.
The first clear symptoms of the attack hit him a block from the entrance. Searing pain seemed to rend a hole through his chest and he doubled over. The streetlights around him grew dim. He staggered, and in slow motion, with gentle incredulity, went down onto his knees on the sidewalk. The first pain eased but he stayed kneeling. Everything had become strangely quiet. He became aware with crystalline clarity of the sound of small waves breaking against the shoreline somewhere in front of him, the sound of the wind moving all through the valley. Off to his right somewhere a door slammed. A woman in high-heeled shoes clicked across the concrete patio. Could he call to her? A small hoarse voice came out of him that hardly seemed to carry beyond his own ears. A second door opened, shut, and there was silence again.
Very very slowly he stood up and waited, listening to his body. The pain grew again, and an unfamiliar see-sawing weakness. He looked down at the two legs that still held him up, faintly surprised. Very carefully he began to walk. He was trembling. He had no thoughts. His sole purpose was to place one foot in front of the other, the foot behind in front of that. He was past two potted plants, past the large mailbox painted with the motel’s name, and the entrance was before him.
The door to the manager’s cottage was only a few steps ahead, the porchlight on. He put his hands out to the cold red bricks of the foyer and clung there. His heart pounded erratically and he finally understood.
The manager’s porchlight shone cold and bleak out over the asphalt. If he could make it there, if he could knock on the door and stay standing until they opened it, he could tell them. Tell them what?
“I’m dying. Oh please help me I’m dying.”
He saw himself led to the black leather couch in the office. They would call an ambulance, turn on bright lights and sirens, deliver him to the hospital. They would dress him in white. They would measure every detail of his dissolution. But they wouldn’t save him. Without knowing how, he felt certain of it.
It was simple suddenly. He could not ask for more than he was being given.
There was very little strength left in his legs but it was enough. He made it to his own door still standing on them, worked the key out of his pocket and let himself in. With the door closed he rested his head against the doorjamb. He struggled heavily between acceptance and terror, until at last the terror went, little by little, like the receding cry of a startled bird.
When he reached the bed he sat down with great care, minutely aware of every sensation, the soft in and out of his breath in the dark, the light unsteady beat of his heart, the tiny definite lines of his corduroy pants beneath his fingers.
He did not turn on the lamp. Looking out into the open space beyond the window, he tried to believe what was happening. The feelings from before began to come back to him, and he stared, wide-eyed, expectant, at the lovely flower still blossoming beside his window. Again the pain struck him, jagged, all-consuming, and he sighed with brief fear. Weakness fell down through his body like water, and he lay on his back, his head on the pillow, staring into the quiet dark of the room. The pain eased only slightly.
For a long time he lay still, attentive to a cold that had settled in his feet and was moving up his legs. He felt weakness so complete it seemed a tremendous weight was pressing him into the bed.
“This is death,” and again, “I am dying,” a voice in his mind whispered. He reached to put a name in the sentence and with a tremor of panic he realized he could not find it. His memories and his name were slipping away from him, simply and easily as a coat dropped by the road.
Looking over at the picture of the schooner, he found he could no longer focus his eyes and closed them.
A strange peacefulness was growing in his mind, a peace without stupor, clear and alert. He had nothing left to hope for, but he discovered that he had no regret, no sense of anguish. He only remained very curious about what was happening to him, almost pleased in his relief. He hadn’t realized the depth of his fear until now when it was leaving him.
Dimly he knew that his body had gone cold, that his tongue sat thickened and dry in his mouth, that his breath stuttered. But the suffering was remote, it did not intrude. His mind opened and opened, rippling with images he did not understand, clearing like a muddy pool that has begun to settle. After all there was something to know. He would know it now. Without resistance he let the light of his life go out.