“Among the victims of the bitter cold was the resident of a home for the elderly in New York who was found frozen to death on a fire escape.”
San Diego Union
One day the old man brings in a dish of oatmeal to feed the lump of flesh which had once been his wife and discovers that she is dead. He is numb. How can he be otherwise? Florence died long before the breath went out of the mass that now lies so still in his bed. He had begged her to stay with him but could see that she was powerless in the grip of a tide that was pulling her away. They had not even talked for two years. Sometimes he would hear her murmuring his name to herself but the eyes that met his were empty of recognition.
The old man leaves the room and curls up in his armchair in mute misery.
After she is buried, he seldom leaves the house. He is wrapped up in a puzzle he cannot solve. What had gone wrong? What had he done wrong? Had he not tenderly, faithfully cared for his beloved Florence? And then, imbedded deeply within, lies a thought so appalling that he recoils when it comes up to meet him. What if the same thing that happened to Florence should happen to him?
He remembers the first time Florence had looked at him, for only a moment, as if he were a stranger. Then “Jack?” — bewildered, uneasy. “Yes, dear, I’m here.”
Later he found her sitting at the kitchen table, vacant-eyed, as water ran in the sink and the meat smoked in the pan. He leapt to pull the charring meat from the stove and then dropped to his knees in front of her, heart racing. “Florence? Florence?” She had looked at him again with those alien eyes, saying nothing. Then tears. “Jack, I’m frightened.” Of what? “I don’t know.”
Oh, he is sick unto death with the ruin of their lives, with his ineptness, his failure. She had slipped away in terror and confusion, so, so quickly, and he had been powerless to prevent it. Yes, he had called her, asked her to remember him, and remember herself. But very soon an empty mound had lain in their bed, an empty shell that he had fed and washed for weeks, months, two years.
The old man is shattered. Where do his days go? What has he done? Sometimes he is startled to find himself in his armchair in the dusk sucking a cold pipe which he had lit in the high noon sun.
Remembering once in a while that he needs to buy food, he leaves his apartment and enters a world that is fast becoming a maze. He and Florence had lived in this neighborhood for more than twenty years, but he is finding that faces once familiar often have lost their names. One day he forgets how to get back to his apartment and wanders the streets for hours. The neighborhood policeman sees his old friend far from his home and offers him a ride. The old man accepts with a nauseating embarrassment that he cannot remember why and how he knows this man, with his round, shiny face so familiar and yet such a mystery.
Sometimes he fights to remember these things in a furious panic, but slowly they begin to matter less and less, for the old man has made a discovery as he passes his days in his armchair. He sits motionless, barely breathing, until all he can hear is the blood rushing in his head. The rushing grows louder. His ears ring with it. He himself seems to get smaller and smaller until he is only a pinpoint in the rushing, ringing sea. He feels the pulse, the movement of the waterless waves, as they ebb and flow, come and go. He is so, so small. He is wrapped, rocked in the sea. He comes and goes, comes and goes. He is in the pulse, pulsing, pulsing. He is where he belongs, where he is held, so loved. Why did he ever fight this? “Ever have I loved you,” not quite a voice, but he hears it, knows it. From where? He does not know, it does not matter, nothing matters but this peace.
But on one wisp of a breath he is inevitably transported back to the memory that something has gone terribly wrong, that somehow he has failed. And where is Florence? He does not want to live in the pulse without her. And then he feels the gnawing of hunger in his shrunken belly and moves his arms and legs a bit in the chair until he thinks he can walk again. He makes his way to the cupboard for something, anything, to eat.
One day, as he sits motionless in the pulse, he hears as if from very far away the sounds of pounding, banging, voices shouting. Is that his name he hears? But it does not matter. He does not want to move at all. The noises subside and he rests once again in the peace and utter quiet. The familiar sweetness is all around him. He knows it, but cannot quite name it. Then footsteps, sounds, and his door is flung open. There stand the round-faced officer and a person he remembers as his landlord. They speak to him but he cannot yet speak; he is too soon back from the pulse. As if in a dream he sees them looking around his apartment. He hears the landlord say, “This smell is too much; I can’t take it,” and watches him leave abruptly.
The officer is standing over him, his face very close, and is speaking slowly and distinctly to him. “We’re going to take care of you, my old friend. You won’t have to be alone anymore.” Alone? What is he saying? The old man moves his jaws and tries to speak but still nothing will come. He watches the officer walk to the phone and ask for “social welfare.” He hears the officer speaking into the phone in low, muffled tones. Then the officer goes into his bedroom and the old man hears the sounds of drawers opening and closing. He emerges from the room with a suitcase. “Don’t you worry, my old friend. You’re going to be just fine.” What is he saying to him?
Soon there is another knock at the door. The officer opens it and two men enter. Then they are all standing around the old man and explaining to him that they are taking him to a place where he will be cared for. The officer and another man each take one of the old man’s arms to help him stand and the old man finds his voice and says, “No, you can’t take me away from Florence.”
“No, no,” says the officer. “We’re not taking you away from your wife, my old friend. She’s gone. Don’t you remember?”
But how can he find out what went wrong, where she went, if he leaves their place? What if Florence looks for him and cannot find him? He cries and struggles, but the hands that now urge him on are firm and relentless.
In the home, people are always trying to talk to him, to call him back. They ask him to do this and that. They seem to be constantly washing him or feeding him. “Get up, Mr. Kohler, it’s time to get dressed.” “No, you can’t stay in bed all day.” “Take your medicine now.” “Don’t be a baby, you’re a grown man.” There are voices, voices, all the time.
Out in the hall where he sits day after day, the people babble and moan and mutter. He closes his eyes and barely breathes as he used to do, but every time his edges begin to blur and he feels that he is very close to his stillness, the noises crowd in. He remembers too often that somehow he hasn’t taken care of things as he should have. Florence had been so unhappy that she had disappeared. She had not even looked at him anymore. Where had she gone? What had he done wrong? And the old man buries his face in his hands and cries.
One day is as another, one voice is as another, and there are hands and sounds and so many things to be done. Sometimes he is dimly aware that the white-uniformed women are laughing at him when he remains mute to their questions. During his days in the hall he rarely finds his way to the pulse; the noises keep him away. But often at night in his bed if he does not fall asleep immediately he can poise himself on the edge of the silence and sink back into the pulse, his real home.
Someone new begins to come into his room at night, another white-uniformed young woman. When she comes to the old man in his bed, she is very quiet. If he is lying awake, she takes his hand and looks at him and says, “How are you, dear?” When he does not answer, her steady expression doesn’t change. If he cries, she smooths his cheek and places her cool hand on his forehead or strokes his hair. After she comes in the night, the old man can always sink into his stillness, his sweetness.
She comes into his room night after night and straightens his pillow or gives him a drink. Her smell is so fresh, so clean, that the old man momentarily finds himself curled up in bed with Florence at the end of a laundry day between crisp, fresh-smelling sheets. He is wrapped around Florence’s soft, expansive roundness, nuzzling her neck in that smell, that smell! The young woman watches quizzically, searchingly, and the old man comes back to her without saying a word.
He remembers her during the days in the hall and is eager for the night. Yet his heart is heavy with all that has gone before him. He still knows nothing of what happened to Florence. The noises crowd in even closer these days. He does not care to eat but impatient hands continue to feed him. The food is soft and wet, and he cannot taste it. Why do they bother?
One night she comes into his room and after she sits quietly at his side for a few moments asks, “Where are you, my friend?” The old man looks into her shining, steady eyes. If he can tell her about his real home, maybe she can make them leave him in peace. Can he not tell her, this bright-eyed woman? And then he hears her clear treble tones filling him, ringing through him: I will go there with you. Did she really say that? Or is this just what he sees and knows when he looks into her eyes? Yes, yes, he will show her. His heart fills with joy — and contracts in sudden pain as he remembers that he hasn’t taken care of Florence, hasn’t found her.
“. . . could not,” he says, rusty words stumbling from him now after the long silence, “. . . could not keep her . . .” and his forehead wrinkles with the effort, “. . . here.” He moves his mouth and again the words come. “I loved her,” he says, neck muscles taut with strain, “. . . did no good.”
“You do not know that,” she says, voice suddenly sharp. Her tears fall on his hand, but she will pierce him with that voice! “You do not know that. You did the very best that you could.” Her eyes are commanding, the eyes of this soft, still woman who seems now to be made of steel. He trembles and knows suddenly, surely, that she is right. The pulse is now very near; the pulse is with them. It is surrounding the old man and the young woman. The young woman is smiling at him. The edges blur and the old man slips into the sea that waits to hold him.
It is morning. The old man lies alone in his room. All new, all new, everything is new. Florence is gone, but he has done his best. Did the young woman not say so? He is a bride after the wedding night, lying awake in bed, tremulous, flushed. He drinks in the light cracking through the curtains.
Someone enters and is urging him out of bed. Then two people in white are beside him talking as if he weren’t there. They are dressing him, prodding him, pushing him out the door into his chair in the hall.
So soon must he leave his place of quiet. How loud, how rude are the voices and lights in the hall. He is trembling, ill as he receives the assaults to his tender flesh. He is forced to eat and vomits. It splashes onto the dress of the woman who is feeding him. Disgusted, she roughly cleans herself and then him.
Never has a day been longer. Never has a day been louder. Never has he wanted anything more than he wants now to leave for his silent place. He finds himself rocking in his chair. The muttering, moaning, crying continues. The old man cannot bear it! He will hide away from it all, he will leave them. And in a moment when there are no white-uniformed people in his hall, he totters to his feet and stands shakily on his newborn legs. Resting his hand on each chair he makes his way down the corridor to the door he sees at the end. “Fire Escape,” the sign reads. He stumbles to the door and pushes it open. An icy wind shocks him, but he pushes through and steps out to the stairtop. The door closes behind him and latches.
The old man sinks to his knees as a blast of wind hits him and he huddles against the railing. His eyes and nose are running. He shakes uncontrollably and his breath comes in short, painful gasps. He presses closer to the railing and buries his face in his knees.
The cold penetrates his bones, his innards. Be still, be still, old man, he says to himself. At first he is shaking so hard that he cannot quiet himself, but slowly he seems to roll in around himself and travel in, in, in. Poised on the edge of the silence, small, smaller, he listens as if across a huge chasm for a sound too far away to be heard, but maybe if he listens just a little harder he will hear it. Poised on the edge of silence, eager, waiting with every cell, for what? Closer, closer comes the sound of the pulse and suddenly he is sinking back into it, released, so grateful, so small, so completely held, pulsing, pulsing. Something is different here today. He wishes for a fleeting moment that he could show the young woman, and then the wish itself is carried out with the receding waves. He is wrapped in sweetness, tasting it, knowing it so well, and yes, it is Florence, it can only be Florence, or is it? It is F1orence-no-longer-Florence pulsing in the waves, all around him. Has she been there all along? And he, who is he? He is no longer he, he is no longer an old man.