The International Writers Magazine:Dreamscapes
Paul Lerner opened his eyes, awakened by a bad dream in which something, he couldn’t remember what, was coming after him. He automatically reached his hand over to the other side of the bed although he knew nobody would be there.
His wife Sally was visiting her ailing mother in far-off Minnesota, where snow was already on the ground. After 40 years of marriage, he thought, some habits were hard to break.
He stretched, then got up and opened the blinds. Unlike Minnesota, he saw, it was going to be another nice fall day in Sacramento. The leaves on the trees in his back yard were turning yellow and orange; also, many were falling to the ground. He’d have to do some raking up; maybe later. His big black-and-white cat Shandyman was meowing for his breakfast. He filled the dish, then over his own breakfast of juice, cereal and coffee, looked through the morning newspaper. On the cover of the Neighbors section was the story he’d done a week ago, complete with large picture, about a local author. She was young, at least to him, probably in her 30’s, and pretty, with light brown hair and luminous brown eyes. He wondered if that’s why his story had made the front page, because she was pretty. Paul had, through a series of accidents, become a freelance writer after he’d retired. He was still surprised when he encountered his byline in the paper.
He looked at his watch, 8:30. He’d have to hurry. He’d somehow become involved in the weekend tennis tournament at his tennis club and had to be there at 9. The club was a neighborhood one, owned by its members, and was just around the corner from his house. Shortly after retiring, he’d let himself be elected club president (unpaid), having been told the manager (paid) did all the actual running of the club. Of course the manager had promptly left, her husband having been transferred to Alabama or someplace, and the county just then decided there must be a fence around the swimming pool or little kids would be drowning, although this had never happened. It had been an eventful presidency.
Paul had at one time regularly played tennis three times a week at the club. He’d started playing when he was about 40, during the big tennis boom of the 1970’s, when everyone, it seemed, was taking up the game. He’d become a pretty fair player and had done especially well in tournaments. He thought this was because most club players tried to play better than they could in tournaments while he tried to stay within his game. He’d stopped playing a few years ago after tearing his meniscus; he knew too many players who’d gotten knee replacements and didn’t want to become one of them.
At the club, Bill Reynolds, the current president and a friend from way back, put him to work assigning players to their courts and then recording their scores. Aside from Bill and a few other old-timers Paul didn’t know many of the new crop of members, most of them couples in their twenties and thirties. Quite a few of the young wives, he noticed, were good-looking in an athletic way, with strong, shapely tanned legs under their short tennis skirts. He remembered thinking back in his day that this was one of the plus factors in taking up tennis, the tanned lithe women running around in relatively skimpy outfits. Of course, he never said this out loud, not even to the other guys, who, he was sure, felt the same way, and certainly not to Sally.
It was a perfect day for tennis, the sun warm but not threatening, calm, no wind; it would probably be in the low seventies in the afternoon. Little birds sat on the lights over the tennis courts, observing the action. There was a slight smoky smell in the air, as there always seemed to be in autumn. It was nice watching the women running around, hitting their crisp shots, very seriously into the game. If it was pleasurable to watch the young wives, it was a little painful to watch the young husbands. They were all, or most of them, in good shape and vigorous (this was a health-conscious generation) but he winced when they over-hit the ball or went for the lines when they didn’t have to. And what had happened to the good old lob? These players seemed to have forgotten it. They tried to hit the ball as hard as possible when the opposing team was at the net instead of simply lobbing the ball over their heads. Paul thought he’d reconciled himself to no longer playing, but this was one of those times he itched to have a racket in his hand.
At around noon, the tournament was over, the trophies were handed out, many of the players headed to the snack bar along with their kids who chorused, “Can I have a hot dog, Mom?” “Can I have a hamburger, Dad?” Paul remembered when his sons used to do the same thing. Some things didn’t change. Paul considered going to the snack bar himself, it would take care of his lunch, but somehow the sight of all those young people and kids depressed him. He said good-bye to Bill Reynolds and trudged back to his house.
After his lunch, a sandwich, and although he felt tired, maybe because of his vicarious participation in the tennis tournament, he went out into the backyard and raked up the leaves. It wouldn’t do to leave them until Sally came home Raking was something he didn’t mind doing. It was peaceful in the backyard. Shandyman watched from inside the house and chattered when a squirrel ran by on the telephone wire overhead. From somewhere he could hear light voices of kids playing. He remembered when his two sons had “helped” him in the backyard, Steve pushing his little toy mower and Ken pressing down the leaves Paul had put in a trash can. Now they were long gone, Ken in New York selling stocks and bonds and Steve even further away, in Ireland, a software engineer, he and his Irish wife having decided that life there was preferable to living in Silicon Valley.
By the time Paul was done raking, he’d accumulated four fat bags, he felt worn out. He went back into the house and sank gratefully into his living room lazy-boy chair to finish reading the newspaper. He scanned his Neighbors story again, then looked at the front page, the usual collection of bad news, then found the Obituary pages. He’d started looking at them since he’d retired. Funny, whenever a famous person died, sports great or movie star, he (or she) was the same age that Paul was that year.
After a while the words started to blur and, as happens when you’re tired, a variety of disconnected thoughts marched through his mind like an undisciplined army. Then he was asleep. He was awakened by the weight of Shandyman on his lap. He wondered how long he’d been out and looked at his watch. Half an hour. This had been happening to him more often of late. Maybe he’d entered the phase of life when an afternoon nap became essential.
He recalled that in his reverie before dozing off he’d been having an imaginary conversation with the pretty young writer he’d interviewed. She’d asked him how he’d gotten into free-lance writing and he was explaining. Then he mentioned he’d also written some short stories. She told him she’d be glad to look at them. This conversation had been in some kind of coffee shop, off at a corner table, very intimate. Of course, such a conversation would have never occurred; he was far too shy, even at his age, ever to have told her about his short stories. And, like everyone else he’d interviewed, she’d never shown the slightest interest in how come an old guy like him was running around doing this job. The young tennis wives, the young writer, what was going on here? he asked Shandyman. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
He picked up the paper again and read the sports pages,, absently stroking the cat. Outside it was already getting dark. It was also colder. His arms and legs felt stiff. The 49ers were playing away tomorrow, at New England, not good news. He’d watch, although it would probably be painful. He remembered when the 49ers were fun to watch, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young. Gone forever, like his tennis playing. Eventually Shandyman had his fill of being stroked and jumped off. Paul wasn’t hungry. After filling the cat’s dish again, he heated up some soup. It was no fun, he decided, eating by yourself. He considered phoning Sally, then decided not to; he knew she’d call Sunday, probably in the middle of the 49er game.
Later that night, under Shandyman’s watchful eyes, Paul sat at his computer. He wrote: It’s natural that at a certain age, my age, you feel regrets, regrets at the things you never did, regrets at the things you’ll never experience again, serving for the match in a tennis tournament, trying to impress a pretty girl in an intimate coffee shop, the time when you were the most important person in your kids’ lives. I don’t know if it’s generally true but specific to me to have a sadness suddenly wrap around you like a black cloak. This has happened several times this week and I know part of the reason is that my wife Sally has been gone and I’ve been eating and sleeping alone. Another part of the reason may be the time of the year, fall in Sacramento, when melancholy, like smoke, seems to permeate the air, when things shut down and go to earth.
Maybe the biggest part of the reason is the awareness at my age that for you things aren’t going to get better. You’ll never suddenly have your youthful energy and enthusiasm again. As you get older, you’ll tire more easily, your limbs will get creakier, your hearing will fade and your eyes dim. All of this of course leads up to that which you don’t want to think about, your end.
Paul sat back in his chair and looked over what he’d written. Pretty gloomy stuff, he thought. Well, Sally, would be back the next week. He was sure he’d fell better then. But if he didn’t … He’d worry about that later. Meanwhile he’d give Shandyman a final stroking and go to bed.
More life stories
© Martin Green October 2011
Next morning a stunning girl who was in my lit class stopped me on the way out and asked, “Are you the one who hit somebody at a party yesterday?”
On the way back to my office from the so-called oral exam, which I knew I’d flunked brilliantly, I stopped at the State Building Number 8 cafeteria for a cup of coffee. It was, I thought, the least I could do for myself.
In recent weeks I’d been thinking a lot about my secretary Jane Harper and now here she was. “Mind if I join you?” she asked.