by Peter Byrne
(Swans - October 7, 2013)
The Widow Reardon
The Widow Reardon looked at the oblong pill in the palm of her hand, winced, and with a flip of her wrist threw it into the back of her throat. Mrs. Reardon was what Miss Simms, the social worker due that morning, called her. To herself she was always the Widow Reardon. The pill was supposed to be good for what Miss Simms referred to as her depression. For the social center people, depression explained why the Widow Reardon disliked getting out of bed in the morning and spent her days indoors and alone. The Widow Reardon found her way of spending her time so pleasant she couldn't understand why everyone didn't do the same.
She liked being alone with her thoughts. Bed was the perfect place for that and people and the out-of-doors kept getting in the way of her thinking. Some weeks they came for her in the little bus and took her to the social center. It was full of noise and clumsy doings that they said were good for her.
The Widow Reardon couldn't think that joining in a singsong did anything for her. She had never even hummed during a modestly happy lifetime. Moving her lips along with the other embarassed old women only made her feel foolish. They also played games that a young man organized for them. He laughed a lot. They had sheets printed in extra large type. The young man read out a statement and the listeners marked a square with the big carpenter's pencil they were given. The statement could be true, false, half-true, senseless, or unclear. The Widow Reardon didn't feel the differences had much importance. It seemed to be a waste of time and wasting time was something she never did. But she liked the pencil. She hadn't seen one like it in years. She took it home with her on the bus.
This morning she had to get ready for Miss Simms. She put the carpenter's pencil out of sight in the cutlery drawer. She put the two books together that the young woman had left with her on her last visit. The Widow had been told to get out of herself and take an interest in the world around her. Out there people apparently thought a lot about what they ate. A Life of Healthy Eating was about serving big empty plates with something to eat like an island in the center. There was a sprig of green or a small something of another color on top. She wondered if you ate that first or tucked it out of the way like an olive stone. The colored pictures didn't make her hungry. She never thought about food but often remembered washing and drying dishes and putting them away. She liked to do it on her own. Her husband would be reading the newspaper in his easy chair. Working with her dish towel and setting items back in the cupboard made her feel part of his ongoing digestion. She tried to keep her movements smooth and even.
The Widow Reardon placed the second book underneath A Life of Healthy Eating. It was about young adults and she had never noticed that they were any different from their elders. Miss Simms said it was good for her to get away from older people for a change and get in touch with the young. As a matter of fact the Widow Reardon didn't have much to do with older people nowadays and very often thought about her own years as one of these young adults. She did start to read the story, though. But she couldn't get interested in whether the two of them were going to get married or not. The young adult male had a teenage sister who was telekinetic. Whatever that was, it made problems for the young adults. The face of a super adult woman -- a dead, very much older adult -- kept appearing at their window. She had a horn where her nose ought to have been. Whoever she was she didn't scare the little brother of the young adult female. He was too busy causing trouble and smoking dope.
The Widow Reardon gave up on the book when the young adult female confessed to being a vampire, but still in love. The Widow had nothing for or against vampires, or young adults, for that matter. They got less in the way than the goings-on at the social center. It was easier to close the book than to wait for the little bus to take her home. But all that interfered with living her life. It wasn't real like thinking about what she had lived.
Miss Simms came on time saying she had rushed so as not to be late. The Widow Reardon looked at her kitchen clock without registering the time and smiled a smile of thanks. Miss Simms went through the urging and daughterly scolding that had become a routine between them. The Widow would agree with a little blush, though in her real life she never blushed. She had offered tea and Miss Simms said it was so good. On her own the Widow Reardon made no tea. She didn't care much for it as a drink, preferring a shot of port wine.
Miss Simms got up to go. She had never stopped smiling. Sometimes her smile creased the skin just above her nose. It did that now as she squeezed the Widow Reardon's hand and repeated what she had already said two or three times. Mrs. Reardon shouldn't forget to take her pill. She should get up early -- "with the birds, ha, ha." It would cheer her up. She should get out and talk to people. She should get in touch with the old friend that the Widow Reardon had made the mistake of once telling Miss Simms about. The Widow nodded and returned the smile. She liked to think about her old friend who had been dead six months now.
The Widow Reardon watched through the window until Miss Simms got into her little car. Then she looked at the clock, this time registering the time. It was half past noon. She went to her bedroom and got back into bed.
He didn't know why they called him Captain. To his mind he was never bossy, only determined. He would have preferred their calling him the Navigator. But of course it was easier to say Capt'n. That's how things were in the world. He'd long ago, maybe a half century ago, resigned himself to that twisted reality. Afterward, from his point of view, it had been full steam ahead. Except that things weren't like that in the world either. Nobody noticed his steam rising in the cloudy sky.
Navigate, right now he would have to, for Smitty was sitting in the coffee shop across the street. There he was as small as life, humped over in the glassed-in terrace. His shrunken appearance was misleading. He was swollen with the hot air of his past. The Capt'n didn't mind a shot of porno in the morning. It got the blood flowing. But he couldn't take another rehash of Smitty's lurid memories. These began with a survey of the day's celebrity obituaries. Smitty always called the male old-timers by their first name and inevitably had a behind the scenes story to tell about them with himself as the wised-up eye at the keyhole. As for the females of renown, he had just as inevitably fucked them.
It was enough to make an atheist like the Capt'n hanker for an afterlife. He wanted to see those deleted politicians and artists ripple their noses and ask, "Smitty who?" The ravaged beauties would giggle and look the other way, "With that shrimp, never!" But in the kingdom of the dead, Smitty was chief historian. How many other nonagenarians were still capable of stringing bald lies together? He had a long life to work through and the Capt'n would be gagging for lunch before recent history arrived.
Smitty's last stop was at the sperm bank. He'd straighten up in his seat erectile fashion, tune his hearing do-jigger, and give you a virile stare through his double-strength goggles. He was forty years back, first in the line at the donor's entrance. There were big guys crowding behind him. But, short and squat, as he told it, he held his own. Two decades later he was still at it, having outlasted all the big men who had gone on to other hobbies. Smitty talked about his years of masturbation under medical supervision as if it were a military campaign with him a hero at the Battle of the Bulge. The story didn't end in victory. The white coats humored Smitty as he swaggered through his sixties. But they wanted no more of his third-age spermatocytes and finally told him so. For Smitty it stank of conspiracy and he lumped his bum's rush with J.F.K.'s assassination.
The Capt'n shook his head. It was more than a game-changer for Smitty, who could no longer play with test tubes. Faced with bowing to old age, he turned around and remodeled his life till then in terms of dashing masculinity. Like all off-the-cuff fiction it meant boredom for listeners. The Capt'n would have his coffee elsewhere. He strode along with a step that he injected with middle-aged caution. Not for him playing young or on the other hand, and foot, declaring himself in the camp, so handy to the cemetery, of the has-beens. There was Smitty's way and there was Hem's. What was the difference? At a relatively young age Ernest Hemingway turned a fateful page. He abruptly took to caressing his beard, calling the women in reach, "Daughter," and egging on sundry and all to call him "Papa."
Hem's was the astute move to be expected of a peerless career designer and word manipulator. He was finessing the grim reaper. "Don't bother to cut me down. Look I'm doing it myself, a little at a time." Unlike Smitty, he didn't have to recast his life. His tall stories had all been set down and regurgitated ad nauseam. His poses were etched on that part of the national brain pan reserved for Oscar-winning clichés. The Capt'n liked the clever style, but shook his head again all the same. Was there no getting away from this age thing? Smitty's weary carcass fondles his supposedly vital years and the artful fantasist, Hem, slips in among the oldies in disguise.
The Capt'n made his way to an obscure coffee spot he knew. He liked it because no graybeard mythomaniacs would ambush him and no charade of youth brush his table. The place was as age unspecific as you could expect in a commercial enterprise with seats and stools. It was a rough symbol of the Capt'n's ideal, which was existence as ageless as his consciousness. He sat down to read Lewis Lapham's latest reflexions, looking for light on the subject that the Capt'n had been chasing and evading all morning.
Now Lapham was a figure in magazine journalism whom the Capt'n respected. He was usually on the right side of issues, on the Capt'n's side. In this Momento Mori piece he began by replaying what has now become too obvious to need repeating. The Washington Empire has used anti-terrorism's fear of death to browbeat the public into falling in line with whatever it imposed. Lapham went on to say that Americans in the last sixty-five years had come to think they could overcome every other kind of death. Drugs, science, and health foods would beat what Montaigne called "a part of the order of the universe." Again, that was pretty obvious, except that Lapham parochially neglected to extend beyond the USA what is now the mindset of the entire developed world. However, what put off the Capt'n was Lapham owning up to his age of seventy-eight as if that was a heroic thing to do.
The Capt'n finished his coffee and gave up on the seventy-eight-year-old. He wasn't interested in friction between generations. What he wanted was for someone to say that the Capt'n's mind had no age and that no other fact was so important when, as now, he set out again, at his cautious pace, to face life once more.
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