Death was taking its sweet, slow time finding Archie Wheeler. Archie waits, impatient, sitting his living room, his dinning room, his toilet, his porch, like a man sitting a bus stop bench waiting for a bus that is running hours, days, years too late. A man with somewhere else to be, anywhere other than wherever he was. A man forgotten by time and circumstance. A man who has stopped changing calendars or noticing the batteries in his clocks have all expired.
Ninety-eight was an indecent age to reach. As a younger man, Archie had imagined life to be a slippery, fleeting quicksilver moment like a fish you could never quite get your hands around. As a husband and father and employee and club member, he had felt the passage of time barreling fast.
But now he knew the filthy secret of life. Time isn’t short. Time excruciates.
His life has become a waiting room. He has read all the books on the shelves, all the magazines. He has seen all the shows he cares to see, the black and white oldies replay on mute. He doesn’t need the sound. He knows all the dialogue by memory. He has lost his enthusiasm for music, playing only the one opera on record player, letting it dig a deep, angry welt in the vinyl.
Doris died 30 years ago. At the time, it had felt too soon. She had passed too young. She had lived a good, happy life. She had been spared 30 years of cable news updates. She didn’t have to lose their daughter.
Helen was lost 14 years ago. Sixteen years after her mother. Sixteen years in which Helen had her father and her family, children of her own, to look after and help keep her grief at bay. But the grief gets us all, every one. Some call it depression. Some call it cancer. The name doesn’t matter. The malignancy catches us, each one, in the end.
Archie was impatient for his turn. And on occasion, he flips the channels, flipping past the Such and Such Headline News. The bloviating President. The forest fires. The stock market’s endless arrows. Zigzagging up in green. Zigzagging down in red. The panic. The turmoil. The same problems each year dressed in different clothes. He watches with detached interest, a fatal fascination. Each dispatch he imagines Death taking its step closer. So close, surely, Archie expects to see Death grinning out at him through the screen, asking to be invited into his home.
But no. And still he watches, to bear witness. His life with Doris and Helen has been his true life, not this shriveled, forgotten, useless thing. And if he were really honest with himself, he would say he watched the news as a way of letting go of his life. The world was burning. He was swimming out to sea.