Annie and Cliff strolled around the reservoir as they did most evenings, when the sun tinted the landscape into Maxfield Parrish golds and pinks and blues, watching herons fly crookednecked to their nests up in the massive eucalyptuses. They didn’t saying much, just held hands, heading for their usual ending spot–the long oak bar of the Firehouse.
Cliff’s hand felt good in hers. Solid, capable, warm. He’d been there through all of it—the professional struggles, mumps and measles, cooperative nursery school, the cancer scare. All those trips, the college applications. Now Nora was out in the world, and Cliff was thinking of retiring from the firm. He played scenarios back and forth, what if he did, what if he didn’t. Annie, a painter, had no idea. Painters didn’t retire—they just painted bigger, or switched media– turned to lithography, or woodcuts. Or even started writing. These were the best years, Nora in college, then law school, now she was working in DC, good and launched. Annie’s empty nest syndrome had lasted all of a week and a half. Working, no meals to cook, no particular time to get up or go to bed, no one to worry about but the two of them.
Then, her mother began to fail. “She’s sure they’re bugging her room, writing down everything she says. She went on and on about it.” Annie stepped aside for a young runner with three dogs of wildly varying size trailing him on leashes, tongues hanging out. “I finally lost it and started screaming at her– Why would anybody be interested in what you say? Are you working for the CIA? Are you on the House Armed Services Committee? Turns out she thinks its me, they funnel it all directly to me. Like I’m dying to know what she does every moment.”
Cliff just kept walking, he didn’t get involved, knew she just needed to complain, like a deeper form of breathing, with him she could exhale, finally. She and her mother had never gotten along, but Annie was an only child, so there was no choice, there was no one else. She often felt like a diver who gotten tangled in the kelp, she was beginning to panic, she had to find her knife, and cut herself free. “Let’s run away,” she said.
“Let’s go to England,” Cliff said. “Some little spot without phone service. A country pub that smells like people’s wet dogs, with plaid carpet and old men playing darts.”
She took his arm. “It’s horrible to see her, folding up like a piece of paper. You can watch it happening. And somehow I feel like it’s me, that I’m doing it somehow, sucking the life out of her. Like I’ve defeated her in some way.” Annie always remembered the myth about the man who asked for eternal life, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. He turned into a cricket. Soon she’d be able to put her mother in her pocket.
“You didn’t do it,” Cliff said. “You just came on the conveyor belt later. It’s the way it’s set up.”
She exhaled, and grabbed the chain link, gazed out at the row of seagulls which had settled on a line of buoys. “It doesn’t feel good. I wear the things she gives me, but it feels wrong. I wore her gold watch today, thinking she’d like to see me in it—but I’d felt like I’d stolen it.”
He rested his arm lightly on her shoulder, pressed his cheek to her hair. “She knows you didn’t steal it.”
“No, but I feel it. Existentially.”
Cliff’s parents had died years ago, his mother of cancer at 45, his father of emphysema– years ago. Her own father’d had a heart attack in the parking lot at his bank. Neither of them had ever deal with this, the awful and indisputable reality of advanced old age.
And now they were headed that way themselves. Almost sixty. The end of middle age. Though Annie’s friends were always saying sixty was the new forty, that was just whistling in the dark. She had taken to examining people in movie theaters and malls and restaurants, the people on this very path, and it was very clear, she was older than most people in the world now. Older than the newcasters, and the actors on TV, the guys from AT&T. The waiters and bartenders and the President of the United States. She was not middle aged.
Yes, she could still do a three mile walk, including hills, but she looked different than she did at 50. Her hair was gray. She wore glasses all the time, it wasn’t even worth the trouble of taking them off. She wore hats. She avoided heels. She woke at four in the morning more nights than not. Her body had developed afflictions she’d even had time to get used to—her hands, left hip, the top of the left foot. She’d lost a tooth. Really, she had more in common with the geezers in the dining hall at Toby’s than with this couple pushing their big-wheeled stroller around the gold-kissed blue of the reservoir this evening. It was just so sad.
“When we’re that age, let’s smoke pot every day,” she said. “And listen to Led Zep at full volume, and live in a yurt.”
“Sure,” Cliff said, putting his arm around her waist. She was trembling, though the evening was soft and warm. “I’ll be the sane one, and you’ll be mobile, and you’ll push my chair and I’ll tell you who everybody is.”
“And we’ll smoke spliffs big as baseball bats, and sit outside and look at all the birds.”
“In England. With a wet dog.”
The gold of the day had faded to indigo by the time they reached the Firehouse. They settled onto their barstools, hooked their feet over the rail, and whether or not they were the oldest people in the place, their martinis were good and strong– his with olives, hers with a twist– and they toasted the wet dog they would own, and the crickets they would–with luck–become, and hide in each other’s pockets.
One of a series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word is: FLOWER