Leonard as a Young Man
A sharp beam of light split the hallway from the window next to the front door. Leonard’s shoes were tied but he stood unmoving and watched the particles of dust float through the light. He had considered walking a few blocks to get coffee – it was Saturday morning after all. But now he stood in the hallway, unguided and thoughtless, surrounded by silence and dust. It had been two days and he hadn’t cried. He bent to untie his shoes. It had been two days and he walked into his den to find distraction.
Following the funeral distant relatives and obscure friends who offered as many condolences as they felt necessary drifted back into regularity, leaving him in the isolation that he and his wife had come to appreciate. They had married rather late in their lives, having only known each other a little more than a year. It was the spring of 1980. He was thirty-five, and she was thirty-three. It was the only time either of them had experienced love, and so they poured themselves into it. It was passionate, exhausting, adoring, and lasted twenty-three years. Their devotion began to intentionally isolate them from friends and family. They had each other, and it sustained them more than anything else could. They tried, but were unable to have kids.
Here I am, he thought, alone again at fifty-eight. In her absence he wrapped himself in the things that had comforted him in the past. This began, ironically, with a computer. In his den, two days later, he found the vast archives of his life prior to marriage preserved online. On YouTube, he began voraciously re-watching episodes of Gunsmoke, The Beachcombers, and even The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Movies he had seen with long forgotten friends became part of his daily routine. He bought a laptop so the diversion could still be with him as he stood in the kitchen doing dishes, smoking a cigarette on the back porch, or laying comfortably in bed. The tired verse of The Godfather, Goin’ Down the Road, Deliverance, and even Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, became the static that surrounded him. Lines and intonations resounded clearly in his head before they echoed through the room, loud and harsh from the rough speakers of the laptop.
He began searching his mind for hobbies and interests he hadn’t thought of in decades. Online he was able to play Pong and Space Invaders, and found forums where he could argue the merits of the Pontiac Firebird against the Dodge Challenger. He watched the 1972 Summit Series in its entirety, and was overcome at times with as much anger and joy as he had felt when the games were first played. He dusted off his record player and brought up the modest collection of records he had tucked in the basement, avoiding with discomfort those that weren’t his.
A new routine had to be developed on Saturdays. He would go to the grocery store early and buy his banal meals for the week – canned chili, canned soups, frozen meals, chips, pop, pasta and pasta sauce. After this, he would go straight home. He didn’t need to be out more than this on the weekend anyway. He had his laptop, and he could reread old books if he got too bored. He didn’t miss the café because he tried not to think about it. He liked shopping on Saturday mornings better than Saturday afternoons; the stores were less crowded.
Every now and then, he would recall a moment he had lived through with passion, and would search the event online to see how it appeared now in history. He remembered the new flag in 1965, and his father’s arrant opposition to it. He remembered the fear and confidence he felt as he argued at the dinner table with his father, a man who had lived and fought under the Ensign, and declared his approval for the new flag and the sense of sovereignty it brought. He realized now that he didn’t care about the flag or its symbolism, and didn’t care to think about why he didn’t care about it. He remembered listening to the radio with a handful of friends during the Apollo 11 mission, becoming more inspired throughout the broadcast. At the time he was convinced a landing on Mars was only a decade away. He read with disinterested amusement the conspiracy theories that played out in conversations below the video of Neil Armstrong’s great step.
Eventually he tried to push his distraction out into reality. He thought of shooting billiards with friends at the bar in his late twenties, though too prideful to call any of them up after years of silence, Leonard walked a few blocks to the neighbourhood pub in the hopes of shooting a game or two with a stranger. He was disappointed to find the billiard tables had been removed to cram in more patrons. ‘No-one really plays pool anymore,’ explained the bartender, ‘a shame, but we couldn’t have ‘em sitting there not making us any money.’ He sat for a while at the bar straining his neck to watch sports replays on repeat, and left without finishing his beer.
Despite his careful planning, he forgot to go over a block as he walked home one day. He convinced himself it would be fine, and continued forward. When he was in front of the café, he was hit with a sudden wave of vertigo and had to crouch down. He sat for a while, with his heels digging into his haunches and his head bent toward the ground, and eventually felt a hand on his shoulder and saw the shadow of someone leaning down, ‘hey, are you alright?’ He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. He felt sore and tired and there was a smell in the air that was nauseating. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m just not where I want to be right now.’ He arrived home in a haze. The microwave was heating up a frozen meal, and a movie was playing on the laptop, but he needed something more this time. In the back of his closet, he found a green plaid blazer he hadn’t worn in decades. In The Poseidon Adventure, the ship was just beginning to flip upside down. Bodies dolled up in evening gowns and suits slid screaming down the shifting floor and Leonard put on the ugly wrinkled blazer and laughed out loud at his reflection. Through the feigned calamity he had a sudden moment of severe terror. He felt completely absurd, and was glad no one was around to see it.
The decline began abruptly. He was aware that his breath had been getting raspy and shallow, and that he needed more and more sleep over time, but didn’t care if these symptoms meant anything at all. He did his best to continue with his routine, but it was becoming difficult. As he walked to the grocery store, his lungs ached painfully with each thin breath. He cleared his throat and spit, and marvelled at the thick yellow phlegm speckled with dark red against the snow. By the time he had walked the five blocks to the store, his heart was racing and his forehead was sticky and cold with sweat. He leaned himself against a corner in the foyer to rest. He was beginning to realize his circumstances, but wasn’t ready to think with sincerity yet. Why endure the pain any longer than necessary? When he felt his energy had sufficiently returned, he did his shopping and walked home.
His thoughts were muddied, and he felt his mind drifting. He was sipping water and watching a magpie hop through the backyard from his kitchen window. The sky was bright blue and the air was clear. His vision began to blur, and the magpie distorted itself into a smooth black silhouette on coarse grey swells. Space bloated and drained in ticklish throbs until Leonard forced his eyes to blink. An acute whiteness and sharp whine overwhelmed him instantly. It faded after a brief moment, and he could again make out the magpie, tilting its head and pecking at the icy mud.
One bright morning, after breakfast, Leonard vomited and noticed a surprising amount of blood. He rinsed out the kitchen sink, and decided to go back to bed. He walked over to the record player and abruptly lifted the needle off Electric Light Orchestra. The silence was disquieting. He carried his laptop, with some effort, up the stairs and into the bedroom. Sitting in his bed, he felt a numb tingling in his feet, and had to rub them to get feeling back. He realized he had forgotten the charger to his laptop downstairs, and cursed out loud. He would need to get it if he wanted to sit still all day. By the time he returned, plugged in the charger, and perched his laptop neatly on one side of the bed, his breathing was short and sharp.
He remained in bed for several days, getting up occasionally just to see if he still could. Every so often he could feel his feet and legs slowly going numb, the flesh tingling so deep he thought he could feel it reverberate off his bones. His heart would begin racing in short bursts before returning to normal, and his sheets became soaked and stale with his sweat. At first, he struggled painfully to gulp down water from the bathroom sink, but eventually realized this effort was trivial. He didn’t eat anything, and wondered with indifference if he’d even make it down the stairs to the kitchen. Probably not, but that was fine, he didn’t have an appetite.
He awoke and starred at the dim light on the far wall. It was late afternoon, and he wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep. Maybe it was only minutes. He became aware of the sharp thin sound coming from his laptop. Season three of M*A*S*H again. Although the sounds and images had filled the indistinct moments of his regression, he suddenly found them irritating and shut the laptop forcefully. Once silence had settled on the room, Leonard heard a muffled scrape. Over and over, a dull low grating noise. Where was it coming from? Sprawled out in bed, he drifted in and out of consciousness in brief bursts, always dimly aware of the sound. It came to him from nowhere, and he was instantly lucid: someone was shovelling a driveway outside. It must have snowed. He concentrated on the sound, so obvious now, of the shovel rubbing against the pavement. Muriel and he had visited the mountains recently, he thought. They had splurged on a room at the Banff Springs Hotel, and the snow was so heavy the drive there had seemed fatally dangerous. Once they had settled into the hotel, they explored it with childlike curiosity and playfulness. Wandering down the long hallways, they sat in all the refined Victorian-style furniture as if they were caricatures, and laughed at having nothing better to do than sit down over and over again. At each window they stopped to gaze out into the muffled winter landscape. They drank coffee, they slept in, they made love, they swam outdoors in the warm water while snowflakes blurred their vision and froze in their hair.
‘So today’s the day,’ he said aloud to the empty room. He summoned all his strength, and forced himself toward a chair in the corner of the room that faced the window. He collapsed into it, his neck bent awkwardly on the edge of its back and his head titled toward the sky. When the sharp flash of white faded away, he saw it was overcast. Maybe it was snowing a little, but he couldn’t be sure. His mind was perfectly empty as he stared into the grey sky. He considered repositioning himself for a better view, but realized it wouldn’t matter – his vision was beginning to go again anyways. He sat like this for hours, his mind listless. At times he felt a dull ache in his neck, or heaviness on his left hip, but for the most part he remained unaware of his body.
Thoughts began to creep into the periphery of his consciousness, dim at first, but if he put enough effort into it, they became palpable. He had made her laugh so easily when they first met; that’s what she said, how she knew. She broke a finger, he broke a wrist – it happened at the same time and they were both on roller skates. He thought of the joy he had watching her hair greying or the lines becoming visible on her face. As if it was an accomplishment, as if time were an achievement. She took a late night drawing class at the college. Why was he so unsupportive? His breathing was slow and strained. Their first vacation together they went to Los Angeles, and it took three days before they could admit to each other it was awful. Or Vienna. She had practiced German diligently for six months and thought she had enough to get by. No one entertained it, they just responded in English. He was aware of something shifting deep within himself. He thought of the final miscarriage, when trying became too painful. Her hands were always cold. Even in the summer. Even after a bath. He thought of her smile, her laugh, and how she walked. She was afraid of large dogs and dentists. She crashed the car one spring and insisted it was no one’s fault, just coincidence. By now his vision had completely gone. He barely held his eyes open, and could make out only a faint light. How quickly it had all happened. How calm she had looked when they told her it had been found too late and there wasn’t much that could be done. He was silently weeping.
He thought of her singularly.
He thought of her, and was gone.
Matthew Gigg is an author, playwright, and poet living in Alberta, Canada. He has a BA in English from the University of Calgary.