At 94 years old Charles was well past the point of wondering when he was going to die. Instead, he had fallen into a decades old routine to pass the time until he could finally fall into oblivion.
These days he awoke at an ungodly early hour usually between 4 and 5 am. He had learned over the years that there was no point in attempting to regain the sleep that would so violently elude him and so usually he would simply lay in bed letting small thoughts bounce around inside of his head.
After about an hour of this he would slowly and painfully drag himself from beneath old and tattered covers and begin the tedious process of getting dressed. Often during this time, he would muse unemotionally at the fact that he was still going.
In his fifties he had spent far too much time pondering what he felt was his imminent death. But soon he was 60 and then 70 and once he passed 80 years of age, he realized the folly of wasting his time trying to predict his end. It would come when it came and frankly it would be welcome.
He shambled off to the bathroom have pulled on ancient jeans that were far too loose for him, held up on bony hips with an old belt that had yet to fail him. The day’s t-shirt of choice was the same as yesterday’s and many days before that – a threadbare Spider-Man affair that would have been considered vintage 20 years earlier if Charles had cared to look into such things.
He wandered into the bathroom and stood staring at his reflection in the mirror for what felt like days. Who was this corpse his mind now occupied? So, unlike his own self-identity and yet undeniably him. There were a few stray snow-white hairs left ringing his head. His eyebrows had become monstrous to behold. Secretly he was proud of them for reasons he could not explain.
His face was a saggy, age-marked wrinkled mess that felt like a mask over his true self – a self he sought desperately to catch even a small glimpse of but to no avail.
He rarely bathed at this point. There was no need really. No one came around and he rarely left. Although on occasion he would sometimes put on his jacket and make his way slowly to the corner cafe to have a black coffee and sit to watch the people come and go.
They were strangers now. Children of the children he might have known once.
He put on his glasses and wandered to the main floor. It took him ten minutes to get downstairs, one pain-filled step at a time. This was age, everything hurt all the time. He refused to sell the old home and replace it with something easier to navigate despite the many efforts by family and even the city to have him do so. It was in a valuable location and could be developed into a 10 story multi-residential complex he was told. They would even give him his own ground floor apartment for the remainder of his days.
“Come on Chuck just think of the good it would do,” said the annoying city councilor whose name he could not remember. “There is such a need for housing and your property could make an enormous difference. You don’t want to risk expropriation now do you?“
The dolt. There was never any question of selling in Charles’ mind. He would die one day, ideally in his bed, and his youngest daughter (all that was left to him now) could do whatever she wanted with it. Until then he would continue to haunt its halls and imagine his beloved wife was still with him on the colder nights.
Having managed to reach the main floor he wandered into the kitchen where the AI, having detected his wakefulness, had already ensured a fresh, hot cup of black synth-coffee was ready. Charles enjoyed the synthetic brew better than the original stuff from days gone by. Technology could be wondrous in its ability to dial up whatever people wanted and he was not sentimental about such things…he never had been.
His coffee cup was an example of how he forced his world to change around him to accommodate his stubborn refusal to leave or to be cared for. He had ordered it online – a typical travel mug with a lid to prevent spills and a long nylon band attached to the container on opposite sides of one-another forming a handy shoulder strap. Toast had been made for him as well, margarine and peanut butter already spread on its surface, but Charles was not hungry and left it to be eaten later.
Charles could loop the strap over his head and onto his shoulder leaving his hands free to balance and holding onto various things as he made his way through the house. On this morning he would head to the front door which opened automatically as he approached letting him onto the old porch closing behind him when he passed through.
As he sat in the high and cushioned patio chair his mind slipped and before he could help himself, he was thinking of Helen. How many years had he and Helen shared sacred time on this porch silently enjoying one-another while eating breakfast in the crisp light of the morning. These thoughts always made him sad and mournful, and he hated himself for it. He preferred to be stone. He preferred to be cold. Now his careless mind had led him here and he could feel hot tears pouring down his cheeks.
Let them fall. He didn’t even try to wipe them away. Helen deserved this and so much more. She should be here. She should have been here long past him, but life paid no attention to such things and did whatever the hell it wanted.
It was a beautiful early December morning in Manitoba…his glasses informed him it was 23 degrees Celsius at just past 8 am.
He called up the news, leaned back and watched as the lenses hid his immediate surroundings and presented him with a live stream.
Everything was the same. The problems were the same. Nothing seemed to change except the toys and tools people used. The people themselves remained as they had always been, making vapid commitments to improve and fix the problems their parents had left. They never did. They lacked the perspective that had been forced on him. They wanted to solve centuries old problems in a few short years and found themselves angry and confused when they repeatedly failed.
Charles found himself uncharacteristically annoyed by the news today and voiced it off. This flash of annoyance was unlike him these days and this awareness simply furthered the problem.
“You’re an old idiot” he grumbled to himself.
Hours later Charles had found himself jolted from a sleep he had not realized he had fallen into. A small finger was poking him painfully in the chest.
“Hey mister!” A child of somewhere between 7-12 years old was shouting at him (he had long lost the ability to estimate people’s ages, especially young ones). “Are you ok?“
“What??!?” Charles responded angrily. “Why wouldn’t I be? What are you even doing here? Get lost!“
The child seemed taken aback by the response. “Geez man I thought you were…I mean you seemed…from the street I mean…I was just making sure you were ok.”
“I’m not dead yet but thanks for checking.” Charles tried to sound sarcastic, but he must have sounded too genuine because the child seemed relieved and thankful instead of offended now.
“Well as long as you’re ok,” the child began backing away to the steps and preparing to leave.
“As far as you’re concerned, I’m fine,” Charles barked. “Get lost.” At this the child ran off but not without yelling back “fuck you, you withered old dickhead.”
Charles chuckled. That was more like it. Some genuine hot emotion thrown in his direction. Maybe the kid wasn’t so bad afterall.
Getting slowly to his feet, Charles wandered back into the house and stood in the front entryway staring. It was so quiet. There used to be life here. Cats, Helen, visits from the kids and grandkids. Now it was empty. Charles never counted himself as an occupant so much as a decrepit wraith awaiting his turn to dry up like so much dust in the wind.
It was warm where he was standing. There was a small shaft of golden sun slanting in from the stairwell window and he had unconsciously found it and stood there like Superman waiting for a reenergizing that would never arrive.
Finally, sighing to himself in resignation, Charles wandered into the living room, taking the toast he never ate at breakfast with him, and sat in his large easy chair taking small bites. He voiced the screen on the wall in front of him to life and called up photos. He was feeling nostalgic. He had decided if he was going to feel anything today, he may as well dive right in and soak in the emotions.
He spent time going through old vacation photos he had taken from various trips with Helen and the kids. There they were together in a selfie at a busy intersection with Shinjuku bustling bright in the background. They were so happy. He was, at the time, what he thought of as old. Present Charles chuckled at old Charle’s naivety and wished he had spent more time focused on the present instead of the future.
After the photos he spent time listening to his old albums. Daniel had come over years ago and arranged them into an auto-play system. Sort of an AI powered jukebox that, like almost everything else, was simply and conveniently controlled with voice.
He listened to the entirety of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars before moving on to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. It was difficult for him to believe these albums were almost a century old but then he was almost that old too.
The music had put Charles into a weird, foul and melancholy mood. He was angry mostly about still having the capacity to be angry. He was upset at having spent so much time alone and angrier still that this was ultimately at his own choosing.
Disgusted with himself for the sentimentality that was soaking through him he got up and wandered to the mudroom. He pulled on an old jacket and stepped into shoes that tightened automatically. He wandered out the back door to the driveway.
As he approached the car he announced “enter” as loudly as he could triggering the door to slide open. After seating himself the door closed, and he stated clearly “take me to Helen” and the car dutifully responded with “Destination set” and proceeded to carefully back out of the driveway as the music of The Smiths began playing, picking up from where it had left off when Charles had last gone out.
After several minutes of skillfully navigating traffic, the car had made its way to the cemetery south of town overlooking the lake. It pulled up to a particular section and came to a halt slightly off the side of the path. The car door opened at Charles command, and he got out.
It was now later in the afternoon and the prairie sun was just barely visible above the western horizon which was dotted with trees. It was still warm and there was a breeze that played over water of the lake below and to the north causing the surface to sparkle with ripples.
There was so much beauty in the world when one stopped to look for a moment. Even in these days Charles found his heart could be overwhelmed by it which was why he spent so much of his time with his eyes downcast…it was all so unbearable.
He was glad that Helen was here, although to be honest Helen would not have been pleased with this. She had donated her body science – they both had long, long ago. She was the most giving, compassionate human he had ever met and when the day came, he could not bear to follow through on the commitment.
Rather than inform the university of her passing he bought this plot and had her buried here. The stone was simple and made from an unusually large piece of granite from the wall of their home. In it he had the following words carved:
“Here is a star, fallen but still bright.
She lights our dark and shaded heart and keeps us company through this insufferable night
until the dawn when we can hold one-another again and all is set right.“
“Sentimental old idiot,” Charles rumbled to himself. “I’m sorry Helen,” he whispered as he sat clumsily down and leaned on her gravestone. “You were the best of us and here I am lingering and making a fool of myself at your grave.”
He produced a small bottle of Japanese whisky from the folds of his coat and took a long, hot pull downing almost half the contents at once. He imagined Helen staring at him in astonishment and wondering what had gotten into him. Of course, in reality she would have been her normal understanding self.
Helen. As the whisky lulled Charles to sleep he could almost hear her speaking to him. He could almost feel her fingers on his shoulders and her lips lightly pressed against his. How much he still loved her after all these years.
“What a beautiful way to sleep,” Charles thought as darkness folded in on him while from the car’s sound system Morrissey sang mournfully through an open window in the background. “I will dream of Helen and then tomorrow…well tomorrow can be another day.”