George could remember exactly when he busted the bone – or tore the muscle, or sprained the whole damned thing. The thing was that he would not see a doctor about it, so there was no telling the exact malady. But it happened at the vowel renewal of friends, of that much he was sure. It was when the DJ started playing all the old music that always made him dance. The thin dress shoes had been protesting, pinching at his ankles, the angel hair laces creaking like a ship going down. When the twist that botched it happened, he bit his tongue and waited for the right moment to ease off the floor. Later he stood outside the club house, his breath floating on the January air like banners of spider web, and he checked his emails in the compulsive way he had, waiting for the ache to subside. He had been dancing hard, dancing to feel the ecstasy of being just limbs moving to sound, dancing to forget his grief. It had been working, too.
As the months passed, the ache came and went, never quite leaving. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night was bad; he hobbled down the steps to the bathroom like a much older man. He didn’t feel forty when the ankle was acting on him. He didn’t know any older age to feel, but he supposed this might be what ancient felt like. It seemed to mirror his grief. Three months. Five months. Eight. The year was spinning forward, separating him from the night that he got the call.
His mother, her voice small, said, “Your father passed. The girls are on their way over.”
“We’ll be over as soon as possible.”
His husband was already up, shaking open a sweater, fishing a stray shoe out from under the hall bench. It was the night before Thanksgiving. In the car ride over, they got into a curious argument, for reasons George supposed were his fault but could not later remember. He turned the car around, saying he would take his husband home, he would go to the others alone. And then he was crying and babbling an apology and turning the car around yet again. They made it to his folks house about fifteen minutes later.
The months since that distant, cold night had been an awakening for George. He found himself by turns numb or overly sensitive. He took up little projects, but abandoned them quickly. He cried often. He learned to lean on people. He learned to be glad to need others and gladder to have them. Yet there was a heavy stone in his heart and another on his chest when he woke in the night. In those moments, he was aware of an utter loneliness. And he knew it was not just his own. He knew it to be the loneliness everyone had, whether they could feel it or not.
He saw it in old men pushing shopping carts at the grocery store. It was plain on the faces of children eating ice cream in the sunshine. It did not negate the joys of life, it could not erase pleasure. It stood beside all that was sunshine and all that was shadow. It was in everything, behind laughter and music and soft chatter. He knew now in his soul that to a one, every man, woman and child he saw was going to die. It was strange, but he could not talk about it easily. It might be mistaken for depression or morbidity. Instead he took it as a kind of beauty, albeit a beauty that made his gaze climb over roofs and trees to find the sky.
When the summer came, he reveled in the sunshine. He went to the beach and took to the waves with childish delight. He talked with friends late into the nights, drinking Scotch and now and again smoking cigarettes. He took pictures of rotting barns and for a while he took up baking. There was much to do in business and at home. He got used to the new view of things. This was what life had become.
Now and then he imagined that he was gravely ill, that a cancer was creeping inside of him, changing his cells, chewing him up treacherously, as it had his father. And two aunts. And two uncles. It took only a sore muscle, a stiff neck to bring on the fear. Then he had to talk himself down from panic. He never stopped to imagine the ankle was anything deadly. It was mostly a nuisance. It came and it went.
One day he decided to go through some old boxes from childhood. In one he found a baseball and he could think of no reason he possessed it. He knew it was not his. Then one day a week after, he remembered that it belonged to a boy he was briefly friends with as a kid. He was a hero-like blond named Bobby who had an older brother with a congenital heart defect who died when he was only thirteen. George then remembered a night when Bobby stayed over. He had not thought of it in years. For some reason, that night he had decided to scare the other boy. Perhaps he was a little jealous of Bobby, who knew all about fishing, football and fast cars, who was the kind of boy a boy was supposed to be. Or maybe it was a thoughtless kind of mischief. As they were drifting off to sleep, he heard himself say into the darkness, “Sometimes I think of that door in the basement and how rotted it is near the lock.”
Bobby was slow to respond. “Why?”
“Oh, it just seems like if a robber or a killer wanted to bust in, they could get in pretty easily.”
It surprised him then – as it did on recalling it later – that it was so easy to spook the boy. In an instant the brash, brave one was transformed into merely a weeping child. The fear he had thought to conjure had taken hold.
“I’m scared,” Bobby sobbed.
George had felt immediate remorse. It was something he had never imagined, that he could have the power to cause someone else so much worry and grief. Hastily, he made to fix what he had done.
“Oh, I was just messing around with you…”
“I saw the door, George. I know what you mean. It is awful rotted out.”
“But we have a security system,” George lied. It was a stroke of genius.
Bobby was instantly relieved, “Really?”
“Oh yeah.” George said, “An alarm would go off if someone opened any of the doors.”
Bobby had been calmed and was soon sleeping, but George lay awake for hours, sure that if there was a monster to worry about, it was in himself. He learned that night how easy it was to be cruel and how awful it made him feel. But it was not the last time he was cruel. Pride and ego make a person petty and unkind by turns, and George found it plagued him all his life. Finding the baseball and remembering that long ago night caused him nightmares through late July and into August.
Mostly he was a kind man, doing much for others, generous with time or money, which ever was needed – yet the child who saw the monster in himself never quite vanished beneath the thickening layers of manhood that time wrought. The year his father died, he found his soul laid bare. Now and again that child looked back at him through mirrors. The face belonged to the man, dripping with a splash of cold water, but the tear-reddened eyes were the boys. Wide, worried and lost, they knew all about the loneliness.
Autumn came and began to copper the hills. The last crickets played late into the nights. In window wells and along the eaves, the last of the moths and of the leaves huddled in the cold. George woke at three one morning and struggled up on the damned ankle. It was no more or less sore than normal. He winced as he made his way down the stairs. On the third step to the bottom, the ankle gave out and he clawed at the air for balance, but as he fell forward, his head struck the hall table hard and he was out. He opened his eyes briefly, later, and his husband’s face was above him, white and drawn, his lips moving with words George could not hear. His last thoughts were an odd assortment. They were these:
I love you, handsome.
What was the loneliness? Something about children at an ice cream stand…
The door will hold.
And then he noticed that the pain that had been in the bad ankle was now in his head, and in a way it was all over, but yet he didn’t feel any of it so much anymore. He knew he was leaving and as he looked up at his husband’s face, he wanted to say something to calm the fear he saw there. He wanted to say the thing about the door, how they were really quite safe after all, but he could not because then, quite peacefully, he was going through it.