Old age, thinks Harold Greenberg, is an exercise in embarrassment. Slow-motion embarrassment.
He squats in the garden out back, brushing dirt off a tomato whose nervelike veins are just visible under its skin. He likes doing his ruminating out in the garden, alone; just him sandwiched between the reliable ground and the thoughtless sky, surrounded by plants that sometimes seem animate. He is not senile. He is just becoming exhausted by all the casseroles, all the brown paper bag-wrapped mystery meals from the Women’s Club run by his synagogue. Strangely extravagant meals, meals that recall the old-country claustrophobia of the High Holy days at his grandparents’. Brisket bathed in brine. Gefilte fish encircled by softened carrots. Whole Pyrex dishes of clammy kugel (though admittedly this, on a paper plate, had been his breakfast). He is exhausted by Jews stuffing the abscess of sorrow with ever-multiplying quantities of food. Though he loves them, he is exhausted by his daughters; turning a corner and spotting Sheila at the sink, rinsing vinegar through the coffee-maker. Rachel sweeping below couch cushions. (He has never cleaned below the couch cushions in his life.)
He holds the tomato in his palm, shutting his eyes. If not the precise shade of red, it at least feels right; fleshy, warm from the inside. The pit of a human heart. He opens his eyes, the world is all spread out before him just as it had been; he finds this jarring, somewhat of a personal affront.
Briefly, the unwelcome image of a stack of thank-you cards Rachel had bought, waiting on the kitchen table.
Before he stands up to leave the garden—the center of that dark-instinct moment preceding thought—he plucks the tomato off the vine. As he starts toward the house, he idly puts the fruit in his mouth. It is sharp, evil. Not just acidic but nausea-making, ripening over time into a putridity that recalls nature’s ruthlessness. Mistake, he thinks uselessly, recognizing the uselessness. Old age.
The seeds are inexplicably stubborn, moving around in his mouth, slipping into inaccessible corners just when he tries to snatch them. As he sits immobile in front of the thank you notes, calls Sheila, takes out his trash, he feels them under his tongue. Nonetheless, he falls asleep with his lights on, awakes at 4:00, climbs into bed without brushing his teeth. His mouth feels wormy; a world of dark.
The following day he makes coffee, fixes himself in front of the thank-you cards as if willing them to write themselves. There had been so many bouquets of flowers; though Sheila threw them out at least two days ago, a faintly acerbic edge to the air persists.
He notices a petal below his feet, and without really thinking, crushes it with his bare toe. It disintegrates into powder. He tries not to imagine Dot’s expression.
Thank you Betty Goldberg for the azaleas. Thank you Herman Schloss for the roses, the same kind to which Dorothy had been allergic. Thoughtful, if a bit tacky. Thank you for the condolence calls inevitably focused on the caller in place of the grieving. Thank you, nameless sender, for the Whitman’s Truffle Sampler. (Why in God’s name had anyone thought to send that?)
Some mornings, he sits in the low chairs out back. Lifetimes ago he, Dot and the kids had barbecued hot dogs there, pre-knowledge of chemical additives, trans-fats.
He wonders if he has been a good husband, is unsure of the rubric to use. I made her breakfast in bed (well, bought her croissants, all her favorite kinds: chocolate, raspberry-jam-filled, the coffee so strong it smelled like paint thinner). I sat through those misty black-and-whites with her, with subtitles and exquisitely sad actresses, the ones that occasionally led him to wonder if she’d hoped for a hazier, more beautiful version of life. I helped her mother do her taxes each year, pored over bank statements pregnant with untapped funds. I made the kids pasta when she was sick in bed. I bought her flowers.
The centers of his vision blur momentarily. He cannot distinguish the banality of tears from the beginnings of macular degeneration, these days. Does it really matter?
Deciding that it does not, Harold shuts his eyes. The world closes around him like a fist. Baby in a cradle.
It feels ironic to find himself at the doctor within a month of his wife’s death. A kind of “we’ve lost one, let’s not lose the other.” Which doesn’t make sense, because the appointment with his ophthalmologist had been scheduled several months back in the lull preceding Dot’s barrage of surgeries, those finite, fruitless battles.
“The veins in the center of your retina are fraying. It’s happening faster than I’d hoped,” the doctor informs him. “The abnormal blood vessels below your retinas are leaking fluid. That’s what’s causing the fuzziness in the center of your vision.”
Harold and his daughter sit in twin silences.
“The spots can be either blurry or dark, blackish, depending on the kind of fluid,” she offers helpfully, as if answering a question somebody had voiced.
Rachel, under the fluorescent lights of the exam room, appears paler than usual; the circles under her eyes are bruise-colored, bright. In a voice suggesting she’s just woken up from a dream, she asks something about the disease’s progression. His fraying veins.
As the doctor speaks, picking off her desk a medicine ball-sized model of the eye—a grotesque thing with a plastic, removable pupil, veins twining parasitically over the white outer surface—Harold allows his brain to loosen. (This was the simple, or at least convenient part of old age. You were never wholly in charge of yourself, or at least he wasn’t.) He plucks out terms from her sentences, turning them over in his mind, feeling for their contours. Choroid. Photocoagulation. Extrafoveal. He had wanted to become a doctor when he was a child, had wanted to categorize the ailments lurking just beneath the skin; to funnel it all down to the essential break, to what was wrong with a person, what was really wrong. He had imagined examining flowerlike networks of veins beneath a microscope.
Dr. Rubin asks if he has any questions. He shakes his head. Rachel speaks. To ask if he can drive, perhaps.
The doctor tells them it depends on the individual. That reading could prove frustrating due to the precise shape of letters. For the most part, he should be able to perform normal household chores. That driving depends largely on the progression of Harold’s symptoms, his confidence, how rapidly the blurriness spreads. He should be able to drive familiar places. He should exercise caution. Surprising, this abdication of responsibility.
As he exits the doctor’s office, clutching an informational brochure, he registers the doctor’s unnerving grip on his shoulder.
“I was so sorry to hear about Dorothy,” she says, face suddenly naked. He recalls she is married to Phil Rubin from synagogue. The sparrowy build and the gold-grey hair indicate she’s a convert. In this instant she appears to have aged, or he has.
He nods stiffly, feeling a kind of fundamental shift, a crack in the clay-like stuff circulating dreamily beneath his skin. Though a blonde, her eyes are dark as coffee beans. He looks away, afraid that once adhered, he’d be unable to unglue his gaze. He is sure that beneath the annals of her medical knowledge she’d be able to perceive something dark twitching in the recesses of his soul, a spider caught in a well, limbs waltzing restively in the night.
Inside the house he feels her absence acutely, as if she has just vacated the space.
Outside it is more bearable. For one, the broader strokes of nature are easier for his newly blinking eyes to contend with. For another, though gardening had been his hobby, she’d also loved the flowers, watered theirs religiously: the azaleas, the black-eyed Susans, even the flimsy irises. Perhaps it’s a signal of his impending mental decline, but he senses bits and pieces of her outside among the leaves. The calm way she’d fixed her eyes on him. She sometimes read paperbacks in the plastic chairs out back, head shaded by a sunhat, as he planted bulbs in the soil. When she fell asleep and her grip slackened, he had, after placing her book beside her on the ground, briefly shifted the sunhat on her head, registered her eyelids beneath, crinkled-up in some unknowable anxiety.
The grief was amorphous: sometimes petulant, sometimes exuberant, sometime draining all his blood away. It occupied different spaces: the ends of his fingers, stopping up his small intestine, caught cottonlike in his frontal lobe. He had felt minor, steadier iterations of grief before: the death of his older brother, for one. But for some reason, he’d taken that as part of the course of life. A knowable, rational ill. A secret part of him had nourished the selfish theory that Dorothy would go on coexisting alongside him as long as they both breathed metronomically in the same bed.
Sheila visits him one day. She asks for him to take her out in the garden. He wonders whether the request is more for his sake than hers. The desire to make her fading father feel mightier, significant structurally to hers and Rachel’s lives. (Sheila had never liked the garden as a child. Instead he’d spent swimmy afternoons with Rachel, as he planted and she crawled face-down in the dirt, unearthing florescent worms, trying to put them in her mouth.)
“How’s the eyesight?”
He wonders if she’d been restraining herself from asking. Sheila is a neurologist.
A moment passes before he replies. “Better, I think,” he lies.
“Dad. You tripped over the fence earlier.”
“Why bother asking me, if you already know the answer?”
Before they would have pressed the issue, hammered each other into the ground. Now she lets it drop into silence till the neighbor finishes mowing his lawn.
“Do you think she was happy?”
Unsure if she’s asking herself or asking him, or perhaps neither, he waits, nods contemplatively.
The question is so unlike Sheila, logic-and-science Sheila, frustratingly-quick Sheila, that they both let it lie. Days later he allows himself to doubt it ever occurred.
They are pressed up against the end of October. The tomatoes will likely freeze on the vine in a few nights if they’re left out. After Sheila leaves, he gathers each one, stuffs them all into a brown paper bag to ripen on his windowsill. It is the best, if not ideal, chance for their survival. Red and green and gold and yellow.
Leaving the garden he feels a prickling beneath his retinas. Maybe it’s allergies, he thinks, not caring he’s likely deluding himself. It could be allergies. The air swirls with dust.
Winter comes, anemically. The brown-bagged meals cease. He’d started throwing them away in the later months, anyway. He goes to the grocery store and selects easily digestible foods, that have nothing of the briskety toughness, the pungent slickness of pickled herring. He eats Jell-O, vanilla ice cream, porridge from the same enamel bowl. Also, what might pass as more solid meals. Store-bought stews, yogurts, the yellow nutrientless potato bread Dorothy bought several lifetimes ago.
One night around eight, captive before the soundless news, he is driven to check his tomatoes ripening in the kitchen. He opens the bag. Somehow, as if by a minor miracle, they’re nearly all of a perfect consistency: the skins give just enough.
What to do with thirty-four close-to-perfect tomatoes?
He’ll make a tomato quiche, he decides, with a quiet shock of optimism. He’s going over to Rachel’s house tomorrow for dinner. Sheila and she have, with military precision, kept him busy at either of their houses on each Shabbat on what appears to be an endlessly rotating schedule. (Though he feigns annoyance, it falls on him like a relief.) A quiche will be a good idea. Ambitious, but not showy. He doesn’t recall whether John, Rachel’s husband, eats eggs or is now vegan, but he doesn’t much like John anyway.
Dorothy made quiche frequently; her recipe had won a contest in the New Jersey News once, had been printed on the second page. Her secret had been using olive oil instead of butter. They’d eaten it on Thursday nights, sometimes before the T.V., late breathless dinners after the kids had gone off to college.
Cooking has become more difficult in the wake of his deteriorating sight, but nonetheless he’s able to dice the tomatoes without issue. He retrieves the cookbook from the kitchen’s top shelf, and his breath evaporates for a second, recognizing Dorothy’s handwriting there on the recipe page. This vestige of her alive, languidly counseling him about quantities of olive oil, diagonal-knifed slicing techniques, from belowground.
He has too many tomatoes for a single quiche, for maybe three quiches, but dices them all anyway. He doesn’t know what he’d do with the surplus.
He turns to open the refrigerator, searching for milk and eggs. Briefly registers the digital clock on the stove.
Dates stick inside his brain, he’s always been fascinated by numbers, and the awareness blinks into being before a higher-order region of his brain can stamp it out: it’s the day he and Dorothy first visited this house, straight out of Rutgers, married just two weeks. It had been a balmy, unseasonal November, one that preceded the society-wide knowledge of global warming. They’d enjoyed its warmth without contingency.
She had been so beautiful that day, the improbable fact of her, long black hair and coal-colored eyes. The realtor was Harold’s mother’s friend, a woman with a habit of expansive, hand-flourishing gestures; Dorothy had squeezed his hand whenever this happened. Their marital unity newborn.
One moment, after the realtor had retreated inside, to retrieve something or another—was it the contract, had they decided to buy the house then and there? Maybe it was a key to the red-painted shed on the right, the one Harold and Dorothy had renovated several years later?—they stood outside together. Magnetized, their bodies drew together: two sides to a coin, two ions bonding. He felt her breath on the back of his neck. Years before the mortgage payments, before the pregnancies, before he’d initiated a joyless affair Dorothy had likely sensed but always left untouched below the surface. Years before he lost his job one gasping September, financial skimping, Dorothy quietly slicing and stitching budgets together. Dorothy’s laugh-lines, her lipstick. The dexterous ends of her fingers. Years before the hallucinatory delivery rooms, graduations, hospital visits, the minor deaths, the coffee, the croissants, all the slime and guts and fluff of marriage. He had closed his eyes briefly, opened them again the barest of seconds later. The air carried a recent memory of something fragrant or spicy, almost like burning pinewood, though the scent was directionless; and besides, it was much too warm for chimney fires. He wondered, in an expansive way, a happily fruitless way, what multitudes their life would contain.
One Harold opens the fridge, finds the milk and eggs. Retrieves a whisk from a cupboard. Watches with detachment as the mixture turns an undifferentiated yellow—pleasing, even despite his lack of visual acuity, that reassuring absence of detail. Puts the quiche in the oven, sets a timer for an hour.
Another Harold pauses with the refrigerator open; the cold air breathes onto him, blown from the mouth of a giant. He sinks to the floor. He stares into the many refrigerator shelves it seems he’d barely touched for all the fifty years he’s lived here. When the fluorescence begins to irritate his eyes, he leaves the kitchen, the refrigerator gaping. He does not scrape the diced tomatoes into the trash. He wakes up the next morning with the impudent smell of rotting eggs in his nostrils, wondering whether already he’s frozen in amber, a carefully-constructed concept of a life, trapped in a dream inside of a dream.
He is not sure which Harold is real. Maybe both, or neither. In the truest depths of him, his insides are already grainy, disintegrating. He knows that tomorrow the Sabbath will fall on him like a hush, soundlessly as though expelled from the lungs of some unbenevolent angel.