I just spoke to Mr. Blauman. We chat every couple of weeks. He’s my gardener. I always invite him in for a scotch when he’s done in the yard. He smells like whiskey as it is, but I would never say anything.
“How’s business?” he says.
“An insurance office is always busy,” I say. “And what about you?”
We usually talk a little. He talks about his eight-year-old boy, Sam, or a new gardening tool. Today, he talks about his wife Ellenor. I met Ellenor once at the pharmacy with Mr. Blauman. She’s in her mid-to-late thirties, average height, slender, auburnish hair, with green eyes, I think. And she has a cute pock- mark above her lip. I have to admit she’s quite attractive. I was surprised, at any rate, that she would be with Mr. Blauman. Nothing against him, of course.
Mr. Blauman says that things with Ellen–that’s what he calls her–aren’t going so well. They’ve been married six years and were together three before that. I asked him once.
I offer him a scotch. He says that there are things, “you know, things,” he says. I don’t know. He drinks down his scotch and stares at the ice, then out the window. “Lawn’s lookin’ good,” he says.
“Yes it is,” I say and refill his glass.
“You ever married, Mr. Geller?” he says.
“Nope,” I say. “Still looking out for myself, if you know what I mean.” He doesn’t respond. I don’t think he does know what I mean.
That’s a lie, at any rate. I was married once in my late twenties, but I’ve been trying to forget about that for the past eight years. It’s funny how you try to forget something, but how in reminding yourself to forget you end up remembering the thing that you’re trying to forget in the first place. I think that’s right. Anyway, the whole thing seems like it was a lot longer ago than it’s been. But it’s been long enough, if you know what I mean.
Mr. Blauman stands up. “Excuse me. I have to use your toilet,” he says. I start thinking about Sharon, my ex-wife, and then about Ellenor, what it must be like. I admit, I envy Mr. Blauman having such a wife as that. I wonder what they’re all about. I hear Mr. Blauman vomit in the toilet and flush. When he comes back I pretend not to notice. I would never say anything, of course. I refill his glass.
It’s been quiet a few minutes but they seem longer than they’ve been. It’s getting darker out. I wonder if Mr. Blauman’s wondering that I know he was sick. But it’s hard to know what he’s thinking. He sits there in his burnt green overalls. The disappearing sunlight strikes his long face. His small ears almost look like they’re moving in the shadow. He doesn’t notice me looking at him. He’s looking out the window, I think maybe at his lawnmower.
“You mind if I flip on the tube?” I say. He doesn’t move, except maybe for his ears.
“Sure thing,” he says.
I switch on the T.V. The newscaster comes on. The local story’s about some lady who set her house on fire with her kid in it.
Mr. Blauman spills his drink. “Oh damn! I’ll get that,” he says.
“It’s alright,” I say. I go to the kitchen to get a towel. I can still see Mr. Blauman in the dining room. He’s rubbing his hands on his face as if he just woke up.
“Everything O.K.?” I say.
He quickly moves his hands away. “Sure is,” he says. “I’m real sorry about this.” I return with the towel.
“I really do have a way of screwin’ things up,” Mr. Blauman says.
“I never thought that,” I say. He doesn’t respond to me. Mr. Blauman says, “On Sam’s eighth birthday I had a job doin’ some hedges. I figured I’d have ’em done by the time Sam got home from school so I could be at the party. It was real hot out that day and I guess the heat just got to me. My mind was wanderin’, or something, and I end up spearin’ my hand with the hedge clippers. Cut through a nerve. Was in the hospital till nine.” Mr. Blauman opens and closes his hand. I can see the scar. “Some birthday,” he says. “Ellen and Sam waitin’ in the hospital cafeteria all night.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but shit happens. Shit happens to good guys like yourself all the time. And it always happens at the wrong times, too. Not like there are really any good times, but you know what I’m saying.” I don’t know if he does. “Shit even happens to me,” I say, “but what can you do? You try to forget about it the best you can and move on with your life, that’s all.”
Mr. Blauman is quiet. The weatherman comes on the T.V. It may rain tomorrow.
When the commercial comes on Mr. Blauman says, “Mr. Geller. I don’t mean to push you or nothin’, but I like what you got to say.”
“Thanks, Mr. Blauman. I like listening to you too,” I say. “Call me Jack, will you?” says Mr. Blauman.
“Sure will, Jack,” I say. “And you can call me Keith.” We watch the commercials.
“Keith,” says Mr. Blauman, “I’ve been thinkin’ about stuff and I was wonderin’ if…”
“You want to talk?” I say.
“Well yeah, if that’s alright,” says Mr. Blauman. I go to refill his glass. “I’m O.K.,” he says. Then, the sports comes on. Mr. Blauman’s not interested.
“One sec,” I say. “I have fifty bucks on the game.”
“I just won two hundred and fifty dollars,” I say. “Let’s celebrate.” I pour Mr. Blauman a scotch.
“But you don’t drink,” he says.
“Not me,” I say. “This stuff’s been sitting around here for eight years.”
“You used to drink?” says Mr. Blauman.
“Never,” I say. “I keep it around for friends.” Mr. Blauman drinks down his scotch.
We sit through Cosby and half of Jeopardy. Then the phone rings. It’s Ellenor. “Is my husband there?” she says. Mr. Blauman gets on and I can hear him talking from the kitchen.
“Yeah, I’ve been drinkin’,” he says.
“Why?” he says. “Whadya want me home for?”
“Ellenor,” he says, “I found a letter to your sister.”
“You know what I’m talkin’ about,” he says.
“I’m not drunk,” he says, “and I’m not comin’ home either.”
Mr. Blauman hangs up the phone.
“Everything O.K.?” I say. He doesn’t answer. We watch Jeopardy. I wonder if he knows that I heard him on the phone. I don’t know if he’d even care. Either way, I would never say anything.
“Sure could use another drink, Keith, if you don’t mind,” he says. I refill his glass. The phone rings again.
“That’s Ellen,” says Mr. Blauman. “Tell her I’m not here.”
“Hello,” I say.
“Put my husband on,” she says.
“Oh,” I say, “I’m sorry. He just left.”
“That’s Bullshit,” she says. “We’ll see about that!” She hangs up on me. Ellenor has a nice scratchy voice. Someone might almost think that it’s too harsh sounding but I like the sound of a smoker’s voice on a woman. I search my pants and shirt pocket for a cigarette but then I remember that I gave that up eight years ago.
Meanwhile, I hear Mr. Blauman talking to himself in the dining room.
“You make him come a couple of times and then you own him.” Mr. Blauman’s swinging the scotch bottle. He almost hits himself. Mr. Blauman looks at me but doesn’t respond. “Like a puppy at your heels,” he says. He looks out the window. It’s grown real dark. “That bitch,” he says. Then he’s quiet. He turns to Jeopardy, then out the window.
“Keith?” he says. His voice changes and he turns towards me. “You ever married?” he says.
“Nope,” I say. Mr. Blauman puts the bottle to his lips, but it’s already empty.
“You know what she said in this letter?” he says.
“What letter?” I say.
“That I’m just good for fuckin’!” Mr. Blauman’s real drunk, so I don’t respond.
“She said that I could never understand her. That I just sit back and offer my removed objective opinions like I know her or somethin’. That’s what she said,” Mr. Blauman says.
Mr. Blauman drops the bottle and then rolls off his chair onto the floor. I pick up the bottle and place it on the table. Then I lift up Mr. Blauman and drag him into my office. I lay him down on the love seat. His legs and an arm dangle over the sides but I’m not going to bring him upstairs. I close the door and go back to the dining room. I remove the empty bottle and glass from the table and bring them to the kitchen. Now I can sit back down in the dining room. Jeapardy’s still on.
I look out the window. You can see the sky and even a couple of stars. The tops of the trees kind of glow but I can’t see the moon from this angle.
A car pulls up in front of the house and a woman gets out. She walks towards my door, right up the front lawn. The outside floodlights switch on and I can see now that it’s Ellenor.
The doorbell rings three times.
“Hello, Ellenor,” I say. “Please come in.”
“Don’t give me no shit,” she says. “Where is the asshole, huh? You’re gonna give me an answer, buddy,” she says. “His car’s out front and his lawnmower’s still here.”
Ellenor is wearing tight red jeans whose electric blue seams gather around the hips. She has on a low-cut tanktop, which is slightly too short, so I can see the bottom of her belly. Her hair is blonde this time. She doesn’t look as good as I remember, but she looks good enough, if you know what I mean.
“Well, Ellenor,” I say. “All I can tell you is that I’m not a liar. You can check my house for all I care, but don’t you dare call me a liar!” Ellenor looks surprised and waits to respond.
“Well,” she says, imitating me, “maybe I would like to check things out,” she says.
Ellenor has been sitting in the dining room for almost an hour. Only the light from the television is on. I can see the split ends of her hair in it. She has already drunk three gin and tonics. Her nose runs a little so she keeps sniffing in real fast, which makes the pock-mark over her lip move. She looks cute, like a girl.
She tells me that she left Sam alone at the apartment. Her arms are folded in her lap, the right one holding the left wrist. She tells me about Mr. Blauman’s drinking problem and how when he drinks he gets all deluded. She uncrosses her legs and recrosses them the other way. She’s wearing thin blue high heels that match her pant seams. She’s lookin’ real good. She tells me about the letter.
“It wasn’t even a letter,” she says. “It was a journal entry for a character I’m workin’ on.”
“Oh?” I say.
“No, I’m no writer,” she says. “But I create different characters to write down my thoughts for me, ya know?” I don’t know.
“You know,” she says. She lifts the bottle to her lips. “It’s easier to say shit when you pretend that it’s not you sayin’ it at all. If I’m feeling funny, or somethin’, I go to my characters and let them write down what’s bothering me. It removes me from the pain, ya know,” she says. “When you got your own private truths to turn to and you don’t even know what they are yourself, you’re not responsible for ’em, really.” I do know what she means, I think, but I also know she’s lying. “So, my husband doesn’t know what the fuck he was talking about,” she says. “He’ll never have a goddamn clue.”
“Ellen,” I say. She looks at me. She’s chewed off some of the lipstick from her bottom lip. I can see red lipstick on her upper two teeth. Her brown eyes are watery from the gin so I’m not nervous. I lean across to her and kiss her neck. She turns back to me and stares. Only the pock-mark seems to twitch on her face. I feel her leg brush against mine underneath the table. Then I feel a hand. We end up doing it right there on the dining room table. I almost think the legs are going to break off. The Price is Right is on the television but the volume’s turned down.
When we’re done, Ellenor seems kind of nervous.
“Oh shit,” she says. “I’ve forgot about Sam. I’ve forgotten all about him!” She pulls up her red jeans and goes to the door. She waits there for a moment, then looks back at me, and then around the room.
“Am I forgettin’ anything?” she says to herself. I don’t say anything. Neither does she. Then she leaves.
I sit back down with my pants still around my ankles. I hear her drive away. It was pretty good, I guess, but I guess I thought it would be better. I look out the window. I’m not disappointed, I don’t think. It just wasn’t what you might expect.
Mr. Blauman walks in behind me holding something in his hand.
“Keith?” he says. “I found this picture in your office. I hope you don’t mind me askin’ or nothin’? It was just sitting on top your desk. She’s real pretty, you know. Reddish hair and green eyes and all.”
I stand up and shuffle past him, not responding.
“Hey Keith?” says Mr. Blauman. “What ya got your pants down for?” Mr. Blauman laughs and looks back at the picture.
I open the front door and go outside. The outside floodlights come on. I walk out onto the lawn. Mr. Blauman comes out too. I can see the moon now. It’s almost full. There’s just a little piece missing that I want to fill in with my imagination. I try, but I really can’t.
“Hey, Keith,” Mr. Blauman says. “You all right, buddy? You should pull up your pants or somethin’. You could get in trouble.” I just stand there looking up at the moon. Mr. Blauman looks up too.
“You can see a lot more stars from out here,” Mr. Blauman says.
It’s real quiet out except for the bugs and the air is moist with the smell of freshly cut grass. And Mr. Blauman stands next to me holding the photo of Sharon and we both just stare at the sky.
“Isn’t that somethin’, Keith?” says Mr. Blauman.
“I guess it is, Jack,” I say.
My parents spend their summers in Maine, and I have joined them for most of them since I was a small boy: renting cabins on lakes or along quiet coves; skipping rocks along the shorelines barefoot and exploring the woods; fishing and boating with the locals and children of other vacationers; devouring lobster and clam chowder and salt water taffy; and all the rest of what makes Maine Maine. Maine is part of who I am, and one day maybe it will be part of who Hanlon is too.
We have to check out of the rental by 11. The new rental is on the other side of Deer Island, and we can’t check in there until noon. We still have to pack the car, but I’m taking the last load of garbage to the dump. Hanlon wants to go with me, any excuse to be with his daddy.
I have been reading a book about the physics of the future, about how the world will change from 2030 to the end of the century. I realize Hanlon will see things, will really see things. On the way back from the dump I think about my grandparents and the world they knew. And I think about Hanlon and my father and the chasm between their generations. And then I think about how the book I’m reading talks about exponential growth, so I also think about Hanlon’s grandchildren and the even bigger changes that could occur within the next hundred years as compared to the last hundred. And all at once it both amazes me and overwhelms me with sadness. I wonder if Hanlon will talk to his grandchildren about my father, if he’ll even have anything to say. I wonder the same about me with Hanlon’s children and their children and grandchildren. Family is a funny and wonderful thing.
Hanlon’s English is not so good, but he’s making progress. And since he’s only four and a half I’m not worried that he’ll eventually speak the language as well as Mandarin. So I speak to him in Chinese. I tell him that I have an idea, a great idea I want to tell him. He is in the back harnessed to his car seat, so I look back and forth between the rear view mirror and winding, wooded road while I talk.
One day, I say, you will grow up and have a son, just like I have you. One day, you will be a father and have a little boy to play with just like we play together. Do you know that, I ask.
He seems to acknowledge this.
And then your son will grow up and get married and have a son too. And you will be a grandfather just like grandpa is to you.
And he then asks me, what about you and mommy? Will you both be dead?
Even though I hear the question, I want him to say it again. What did you say, I say?
And he then says, after mommy dies will you still be here?
And I know that this is one of those moments I will remember my whole life, and it fills me with awe and confusion. I want to get it right, whatever that means. So I tell Hanlon what I know about life and death, how all things grow and die: the trees, the flowers, animals, fish and people, all living things. I think of something my father has quoted from Samuel Beckett, or at least I think it’s Beckett, who said something to the effect of the following: all things are born and die in a second, the same second.
And Hanlon asks me why we have to die, and I hear his voice crack and I feel my throat tighten. Life is just like that, I say. We come from somewhere, from nothing, very quickly, and I snap my fingers, just like that. And we grow and live, and I slowly open my hand as if a flower blooming. And then nothing, and then we’re gone.
He is almost in tears, but he is not certain whether he should cry. I don’t want to die, he says.
I don’t want to die either, I tell him. We are now back at the house and I stop the car and turn back to him.
I don’t want you to die, he tells me, and vacillates between giggles and tears. I, too, struggle to hold it together.
Mommy and I aren’t going to die for a long time, I say. And you’re not going to die for a long time either. That’s why it’s so important to have fun while you are alive, I tell him. It’s really important we have a good time while we are here. Do you understand?
He nods hesitantly, but he is not happy with my answer. That’s just the way it is, I tell him. I’m not happy about it. No one wants to die, but that’s just the way it is. So, let’s go play together, okay?
And this time he nods more affirmatively. He quickly asks if we can open the Spiderman fishing rod I got him the other day. And I say, sure we can, but we’ve got to move first. Can you help me pack the car? And he is happy to help. He is already thinking about other things.
As I now recall it I’m not even sure that that’s how it really went at all. But I remember how sad and lost we felt together, just the two of us, a beautiful closeness that can only come from deep sadness.
Picture a calm lake shaded with thick oaks and sticky berry bushes. Picture the shore, an amoeba-like bank with dark algae-covered stones. Picture a private beach, where someone lies on a beach chair reading “The Times.”
A motorboat across the lake from you speeds by pulling a water skier. The boat “tick-tacks” along the glassy surface in an effort to throw the skier, but the skier holds on. The boat speeds up and the skier’s grip tightens, but knuckles soon go white and bending a little too far forward the skier goes down. The boat slows and circles the skier. You can hear shouts and laughter. Moments later a bluish-purple “thumbs up” is waved and “Hit it!”: the skier is up again.
It has driven out of sight by now but you can still hear remnants of joyous shouting, and the fading chug of the engine blows through the leaves, and the plip-plopping of a dying wake pats the shore, where someone sits, quite unchanged, reading “The Times.”