Screech. Screech. Screechscreech.
Van pulled the keys from the ignition, his fingers shaking. He took a deep breath; held it; counted to ten. Visualize something. Fields of grain, gulls crying over the gentle shores, whatever the hell as long as it’s calming.
After a moment, the shaking subsided. His face ghosted a smile. It was just as he’d told Charlene. He could handle this himself. Doctors be damned.
The wind caught the open door of the station wagon. He managed to grab hold of it just in time. Probably not the best idea, parking right next to a Mercedes. But, Tuesday morning, and the commuter train lot was packed. This was the closest spot; he could just make the station out in the distance.
His leg was complaining by the time he finally got to the platform, but at least he’d made the train. Barely. The conductor gave him one of those looks from beneath his hat—another straggler, why can’t they just leave their house a little earlier—but said nothing as Van pulled himself up the steps, through the doors, into the crowded car, down the aisle, finally locating an empty seat and dropping into it with a sigh of relief. He called what his leg did “complaining”, but he knew it was worse than that. Shooting pain from ankle to thigh. His knee ready to fall off at the slightest provocation. Made him want to cry, it was that bad. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Tears come now, they might never stop. So, he gritted his teeth, and he bore it.
The pain had gotten worse these past few weeks. …It had been weeks, hadn’t it? Everything had blurred, afterward. He’d told himself he’d been ready. Been prepared. And, he’d been wrong. He’d known all along he’d be wrong. There was no preparing for something like that, not really.
Van was old. He knew that. Didn’t always feel it, not unless the leg started acting up, or the back, or the shaking, or just getting tired more easily than he used to. But still he noticed, every time he looked in a mirror. Every time he saw the young kids doing something he didn’t understand. Every time he went in a store or restaurant and got waited on by a pretty girl. Was a time when they’d flirt with him, when their customer service smile meant more than just that. Nowadays the smile was still more: only the more was more gentle. More kind. More “aw, isn’t he just adorable”. They’d talk a little louder, a little slower, maybe a solicitous hand to the arm. He was a sweet old grandpa, and that was all.
Not that he’d ever looked for attention. He hadn’t had to. He’d had Charlene. Fifty years, he’d had Charlene, and she’d had him. Classic love story. Rough times, smooth times. They’d stuck it out. They’d stuck together.
Until she’d been ripped away.
That was another thing about getting older… getting old. Cancer didn’t mean as much. Not to anyone else. Oh, they were understanding enough. But there was a difference between, say, a 30 year-old and a 70 year-old, not least when it came to a deadly disease. You could hear it in people’s voices when they sympathized, or attempted to. 30, struck down in the prime of life. So much left undone. Horrible. Devastating. But then add 40 years to that. It’s still awful, just terrible… but… at least you had your chance, didn’t you? Got to live a full life. And you’re… well, put it bluntly, you’re that much closer to the end. May as well go one way as another.
But that wasn’t right. It was never right. Nobody should have to go like that. Not like that… not like that. So much pain. That’s what he remembered first, not the good times, not the bad, but the pain. The pain in her eyes.
Van blinked back the memory and pulled his tan jacket closer, the paper in his pocket crinkling in protest. Cold today. Cold every day since. And him just going on auto-pilot. Like part of him had died along with her. It was a cliché, but it was true. He just didn’t feel quite there. Like he was living someone else’s life, living in someone else’s world. Like he didn’t belong, anymore.
He wouldn’t even be here right now. Not if it were up to him. If it were up to him, he’d… well, he wasn’t sure what he’d be doing. Sitting at home, probably. Packing her things away… no, he wouldn’t be doing that. He wasn’t ready. Just sitting, then. Just sitting.
The loudspeaker crackled, making him jump. “garblegarble Now approaching Ogilvie Transportation Center garblegarble…”
He looked around. Here already. Had he been lost in thought for so long?
People around him started to stand, gather up their bags and purses. Van waited until the compartment was fairly clear before making the attempt himself. It always took him too long. Hurt his leg, hurt his knee, hurt his pride. Just another old man, no control, no energy. Poor thing.
Wind outside was stronger than ever, whipping his thoughts around, jamming hands into pockets. Leg still complaining, so he allowed himself to hail a cab at the stand. No shame there, at least; most people did it. “Where to?” from the cabbie. At least, that’s what he thought the man said, accent so heavy it may as well have been the crackling of the train loudspeaker again. “Art Institute,” Van replied, even though it was early; half an hour yet until the appointment. Would have been smarter to walk, waste the time, but that wasn’t an option and he knew it, even if he didn’t want to.
Push through the door to the museum and the atrium opened out before him, high ceiling, wide staircases. Something about museums always made him stop, and look. There was a beauty and solemnity to those buildings—like the way banks and post offices used to be. He felt like a little kid again, holding his mother’s hand, her keeping him close and chiding him to be on his best behavior. And he always was. He still was.
Spotting the nearest guard, Van approached slow, careful, polite. A young man who probably didn’t think he was. Looking off over Van’s head with a bored expression.
“Restrooms are to the left.”
They didn’t even ask anymore, hadn’t for the past ten years or so, just assumed. Old guy, he’s either got to take a leak or else he’s lost. Or confused. Or all three.
Van took it in stride. He’d learned to. Just a part of life now. He tried again.
“No. I’m here for an interview.”
That got the guard’s attention. Skepticism flickered across his eyes as he focused on Van.
“Interview for what?”
Van gestured at him. “For the guard position.”
This was a good kid. He wanted to laugh, you could tell, but held it back. Jerked a finger behind him. “Oh. Ok. Downstairs. Third door; then go along the hall until you see the lockers. Ask for Rog.”
“Thank you.” Van followed the direction of the thumb, knee protesting as he worked his way down the steps, other visitors and workers brushing past him, an obstacle to be gone around. Third door, third door. There were doors all over the place. He tried a few; most were locked, save the one that turned out to be a broom cupboard. The fifth one along finally gave, revealing a long fluorescent-lit hall beyond. In what universe was this door third? But he shook his head and stepped through.
There were lockers, at the end of the hall as promised. Van willed himself to keep going, and was moderately successful; only one stop to lean against the wall, a brief few seconds. But he made it. He made it.
The lockers continued around the corner and to the left about 12 feet, creating a tiny sub-room; this, in turn partially barricaded off by a battered, paper-covered desk. Another guard sat behind the desk, chair swiveled away from Van.
“Uh.” He coughed. “I’m here to see Rog?”
The man turned toward him, and Van mentally changed the name to Raj. He wasn’t sure why; either could be correct. Maybe it was some racist part of him he liked to believe wasn’t there.
“Got a message for me or something?” Raj—Van decided to stick with the second spelling—drawled. Flat, straight-up Chicago accent.
“No. I’m here for an interview.”
Not everyone was cut from the same cloth as the kid upstairs. Raj’s eyebrows rose enough to sink into his hairline. His laugh, too much to contain, bounced off the surrounding walls.
“The… the guard interview?” The laughter increased as Van nodded. “Oh, man. I’m sorry, I just…” He wiped away a tear. “Are you serious?”
Van gave a second nod, this one taking some effort. Pain was shooting up his leg. He gritted his teeth, yet again, and tried to keep his face calm.
“…Oh boy.” The laughter forced down with a visible effort. Raj cleared his throat, picked up a pen, fiddled with it. “Look…”
“I’ve got experience.” Van cut him off before the objection could come.
“I bet.” The guard nodded. “I bet. Tons of it. Yeah. It’s just… well, there’s not technically a cut-off for age…but…”
“I can do this.” His jaw clenched as the leg gave another protesting stab. “Just give me a trial run.”
Raj hesitated; regarded him. Van could see the mental arithmetic. How old is he, anyway? Got to be as old as my grandpa. Always this from the young people. Once you got to a certain age, it didn’t matter how old you actually were, everything blended together after that.
Finally, the guard shook his head. It was too late for tact, but he made the attempt anyway. “…No. No, I’m sorry. We need someone with…ah… well, you need to be able to stand for long hours, be able to run if necessary…”
“I fought in two wars.” Not so polite. Van felt frustration rising. That wouldn’t help anything, but at this point, what would? Standing. Running. Given the state of the guard’s waistline, these didn’t seem like particularly strong job requirements.
Raj nodded. “I bet you did, I bet you did. And the Chicago Art Institute thanks you for your service. …But we can’t give you the job. I’m sorry.”
There was a long pause. Van stared at the younger man. Thirty if he was a day. What did he know about anything?
Raj cleared his throat again; looked down, shuffled some papers on the desk. This was the end of the interview. Van was supposed to leave. But his fingers, stuffed in his pocket, clenched round the plastic bag inside, were shaking again. Threatening to spread through the rest of him. It was all he could do to control it.
The guard looked back up, his eyes flitting about the room a split second, betraying his discomfort. “Really. I’m sorry.”
Another moment; the shaking quelled, thank god. Van broke his gaze away. “Yes. Of course. I’m sorry too. To have bothered you. Thank you for your time.”
The walls were reversing past. It didn’t feel like he was walking; more like everything else was moving around him. The spell finally broke when he found himself back out on the sidewalk, wind blustering around and through him, just like the rest of the world.
Nothing he wasn’t used to at this point. It was everywhere he went. Everywhere. When he’d been younger, he’d assumed that age came with automatic respect. Never mind that he himself felt the elderly had little, if any, value. Useless, really, aren’t they? But most people give them respect, certainly, of course, it just comes with the territory.
So much for that theory, at least when it came to work. No-one would even give him a chance. And yet, he needed a job. Savings were gone; had been for some time now. All toward Charlene’s medical bills, and still many left to be paid. She’d wanted him to see a doctor about the shaking, made him promise her, but… well, Van couldn’t keep all his promises and he knew it, no matter how much he liked to think otherwise. Lucky he had it under control. If only for the time being. It wasn’t a problem. Nothing he couldn’t handle. He could work, if given the chance.
But chances just didn’t come, anymore. Too bad about that age thing. Sure, he seems a nice enough old codger, but come on. Probably deaf; you’d waste too much time yelling instructions in his ear. Probably confused; wouldn’t understand the instructions once he heard them. Practically one foot in the grave already. Why bother hiring someone like that?
His leg spasmed under him and Van realized he was walking again. Grimacing, unable to hide it this time, he leaned against a coffee shop window. Women at the table inside, high-class, too much make-up, pretending not to see him. Just some riff-raff. Ignore him and he’ll go away.
Fingers clutched at the pocketed bag again, a sort of talisman. The crunch of paper inside reminded him not to clutch too tightly, lest his scrawl prove illegible after the fact.
Not too long to the fact now. There was the river, just ahead. He took a deep breath and kept going.
He’d tried, tried, again and again and… this was the last try. There was nothing left in him. The world had pushed him away, just as he’d known it would. Face it. There was no room in society for him, anymore.
Van supposed it had been that way for a while; he just hadn’t noticed it when Charlene had been alive. Hadn’t cared. To each other, they were every bit as young as they had always been, only with a few more pills and a bit less activity. Each day he had counted as blessed, even the bad ones. Just because they could spend it together.
But Charlene was gone. His days were bare.
The bridge was one of a handful higher and longer than the rest. Pedestrians created a decently heavy foot traffic, strange in winter, par for the course in Chicago. As usual, no-one paid him any attention.
He’d come down to the city to visit quite a lot through his lifetime. A boy, marveling at the buildings that seemed to reach the stars. A teenager, pretending he was a man though not believing it, not deep down inside where no-one could see. Strutting around with his friends, cocks on the walk. Their faces came to him, clear for the first time in years. JT, Corey, Pete. Pete loved to razz him about his name. Van's mother, who loved to go to “the show”, had named him after her favorite actor. Everyone used to know who that was, and his friends teased him mercilessly about it. No-one teased him anymore.
Van looked at the water. It was a long way down.
Everyone would see. For once, everyone would see.
But it would be too late.
Who was he? Shrug. Don’t know. Some old man. Poor thing. Note in his pocket, wrapped in plastic. Guess he planned it out. Can’t blame him, really; wife dead, nothing left for him, no wonder he jumped. Terrible, huh? Hope that never happens to me.
Then they’d forget about it. Go back to their lives. Live their lives. And someday, if they were lucky, they’d wake up; and be old like him. What a surprise. Never saw that one coming.
Drowning wouldn’t be fun. But it was a walk in the park compared with what she’d had to go through.
Van put a foot between the metal girders.
A hand on his shoulder. A young man, well, younger than Van, concern in his eyes.
“I’m fine.” Van managed. His fingers trembled fiercely, bracing themselves on the cross railing. “Just leave me alone.”
“Yeah.” The man—not so young, probably in his forties—kept the hand on his shoulder. “When you’re off the bridge. Didn’t you hear the bell?”
The words registered slowly; Van followed the pointing finger to the crowd at the end of the sidewalk.
They’re gonna raise it,” Confirmed the stranger. “Come on!”
Van bit back his frustration. His life was his own, as was the decision to end it however and whenever he wished. But it seemed the world couldn’t allow him even that much. So, he nodded, and allowed the younger man, who seemed to think Van needed assistance, to escort him to safety.
The two halves of the road arced toward the sky. Despite the circumstances, his stomach filled with awe, as it always did at the sight. His first date ever, with Charlene. He’d wanted to impress her, had brought her down to the city. And they’d stood there watching as the bridge split in two. His wonder immediate, hers delayed, until the boats came through the gap. He never understood why she enjoyed that part more. Something, she said, about serenity, a sort of pride the vessels seemed to have as they cut clean and graceful through the water.
She was like that herself. Like one of those boats. Proud, graceful, strong. Her life a clean path, one continuous smooth slice. She was the one people noticed when they were together; he’d always been in her shadow, and felt himself privileged to be there.
The boats passed through the concrete arch, no thought but that of their respective destinations, ever more beyond his reach. But he could do the same. So to speak. He’d cut through that water… embark, as it were, to places unknown…
Wind had settled down now. Little more than a breeze. It seemed to whisper as it curved round him.
It was gone.
Van blinked. The boats were past. The bridge was closing. And tears, real, hot, so long held back they’d been near forgotten, were coating his cheeks.
“Sir. Sir. Are you ok?” The younger man still hovered at his elbow, looking at him in concern.
Van knew it wasn’t the right concern, that the man was more worried about the old guy’s mental state than anything else, you know they get fogged up, they get confused; but suddenly that didn’t seem to matter. A strange joy filled him, spilling over in a small laugh, a grin rusty from disuse. He returned the stranger’s clap to the shoulder, causing the man to flinch in surprise.
“Yes. Yes, I’m… I’m ok.” The other man continued to look unconvinced; Van sobered a little. “Really. I’m fine.”
The stranger hesitated; then nodded. “All right. Well… you take it easy, huh?”
Easy, thought Van as the man walked away. Nothing about his life was easy. Not now.
But at least he was here to live it. And that was worth everything.
Back on the train, ready to head home. Van brushed past seat after seat, most of them full. A young couple on their phones. A man alone, only slightly older than they, waistline similar to Raj’s; looking morosely out the window, like he was lonely and feeling it. Van thanked whatever powers there may be that he’d never felt alone. Not until a few weeks ago. That was rough. Still was. But at least he had his memories for company. Some people didn’t even have that much.
Settling into a seat at last, he felt a strange calm. There were good things about growing old; having lived a long and full life. He’d forgotten that, or not allowed himself to realize it. Yes, Charlene was gone. That hurt, more than any hurt he’d ever felt, and it wasn’t going away any time soon. But he was alive. He was able to feel that hurt. He’d never understood before what a privilege that was.
He looked back at the young couple, a few seats behind across the aisle. Caught up in a whirl of constant todays. Tomorrow they’d be old like him. He felt some pity at how much they didn’t yet know. Yes, growing old would happen, god willing, for them, and sooner than they’d think. But not that soon. No, not that soon. They had to wait. Wait for those memories. For that pride; that contentment. Regrets, too, at some of what they’d done, and most of what they hadn’t. All those things that made a person complete.
Van felt complete. He couldn’t say why; couldn’t say what had happened, what was different. But he was different. The shaking had subsided. His leg had stopped hurting. For the moment only, he knew, but that didn’t matter. Every minute counted. Every minute could be seen as blessed. Even those minutes full of pain.
His gaze rested on the wall marking the end of the car before him, looking but not seeing. For the first time in a long time, his thoughts were on the future. There was still more life to come. He didn’t know how much more.
But he was looking forward to finding out.