Harold Wilson became elderly in 2005, when he awoke on a Sunday morning and found his wife, Miriam, lying cold in bed beside him. He called the coroner, made the arrangements, and sat with his adult step-children at the memorial service three days later. At home after the ceremony he studied the silent rooms, Miriam’s needlepoint framed on the walls, and the impression of her body still in the bed. He sat down at the kitchen table and cried for awhile, then made another round through the house. Hung his cane on the living room door knob and lay down on the sofa. Hoped to never awake again, unless it was in a world long gone from that now airless cottage.

He woke up. Life laughs at you that way.

His step-children quickly abandoned him. Meghan and Robert wanted the money and, when Harold explained there had been no life insurance, they disappeared, taking with them their mother’s jewelry, photos and needlework, and the microwave oven. Harold looked around at what was left and decided it was time to move. There was nothing left. The air was as grey as the ghost of his wife.

He was 68 years old. One tour in Vietnam, in 1969. Three semesters at the University of Louisville. One hundred semesters reading meters for the Louisville Gas and Electric Company. Twenty-eight years watching television with a widowed woman who’d never told him her favorite color. Never once had it occurred to him to ask.

Finding an apartment was easy. There was a dusty, run down building next to a White Castle restaurant where he’d eaten lunch his last 20 years with the gas company. On the wall of the block-ish, three-story structure was a sign advertising efficiency apartments for $400 a month, heat paid. In the past, Harold often wondered what it would be like to lock himself away inside a snug apartment there and observe the world, safe and apart from the stress and discomfort of living.

A man older than himself, nearly bald and toothless, showed him the apartment. It was twelve by twenty-five feet, with a kitchenette and bathroom occupying half the space. The air was rank with the smell of bug spray. Harold paid his first month in cash.

Moving was easy. He had few clothes, and most were his old work uniforms. Renting a truck, he paid a neighbor’s two teenage sons to carry his bed, sofa, and television out of the house, then up the stairs to his new residence. On a fall afternoon he set up his bed and visited the supermarket a block away.

Immediately a change fell over him. He felt as if he were finally home after a long, senseless journey. After making a stack of bologna and cheese sandwiches, he briefly mourned the loss of his microwave. The sandwiches were better with the cheese melted. Settling back on his sofa, he watched Game One of the World Series. Chicago beat Houston 5-3 after savaging Roger Clemens. The bedclothes were still in a cardboard box, so he stretched out on a sofa and watched stars twinkle over the White Castle.

Harold disappeared there, on Preston Street, into that seamless void men make for themselves when they’ve seen too much of the world, when a life that had little to offer suddenly offers less. When winter came, he bought a two-wheeled grocery cart. The kind old people pull along, he thought to himself. His purchase meant he only had to venture out once a week now, and once a week was becoming all he could stand. Each morning he felt he had escaped a world which was destroying itself. Before bed, he would stand at his window, watching the cars passing below, and feel secure and alive. He had no one, and he needed nothing.

After the World Series ebbed into football, he watched his beloved Green Bay Packers fall into a cursed season. Two running backs went down with injuries and the aging quarterback played like an aging quarterback. Harold fretted, but consoled himself by cleaning the windows and keeping his quarters spotless. A cloudless night, wondrous in his ratty little penthouse. Each star appeared florescent, and every person passing on the street below his window appeared gritty and real. Too real to encounter except from a distance.

Then football season gave way to the gray area before baseball’s spring training. Harold watched the news and felt a bit smug about the war in Iraq. Let these kids have their own Vietnam. Their Iraq and their crime and drugs and violence. He saw it all on the news every night, from his window occasionally even noticed a solitary dark figure standing on the sidewalk across the street. A car would pull to the curb, and the man would lean into it for a moment. Then the car would pull off, and the figure would walk back into the shadows. To Harold, it demonstrated the downward spiral. He would shake his head and retire to bed or television or last Sunday’s newspaper.

The day the Cincinnati Reds began their pre-season opener, he noticed it was nearly a week past his wedding anniversary. This fact rang flat, like one of his gas wrenches dropped onto the concrete. It ate at him, though, and he slowly trooped down to the supermarket to buy beer. The last time he drank was the day the first President Bush left office. This time felt more somber. Picking up a six-pack of Michelob, he passed through the U-scan checkout and shuffled home.

Back in his apartment, the first taste hit him like a narcotic. No wonder half the people in the building were drunks, he thought. Turning on the television, he knocked back three beers during the first four innings of the Reds’ game. Weaving his way to the refrigerator, he uncapped a fourth. Finding himself at the window, he grew entranced by the cars moving down the street.

Each headlight retraced the same path.

Where were they all going?

 

 

 

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© Robert Penick