Every night, about halfway between the end of the Johnny Carson show and sunrise, old Art wakes up with cramps in his legs.
At least he calls it cramps. It’s really a kind of numbness, like walking on a leg that’s fallen asleep. He’s heard the stories about how a man dies from the legs up, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, about the loneliest hour on God’s earth, it scares him. He gets out of bed in his old sleep-smelling pajamas, searches on the dresser for his glasses, and by the orange glow from the nightlight in the hall, he methodically rubs the life back into his legs.
He knows it’ll just happen again if he doesn’t take his quinine (thank God for coffee, whiskey, and quinine), so he goes to the bathroom and flips the switch—Ah! Blindness!— flips it off, covers his eyes, then on again and waits for his eyes to adjust.
The sight that comes to him there on the bathroom counter would appall anyone who hadn’t seen it before. There must be four or five square feet of medicine bottles and vials. It looks like a plastic and glass scale model of downtown L.A. There’re high-rise gargles and ointments in the center, spreading into low-rent suppository slums. There’re multi-pastel condo depressants squatting over the suburbs, with a winding freeway of hot water bottle tubes lined with billboards for cheap pain relievers, all fading into dry-dock laxatives and long white beaches of unknown powders and salves. Art fumbles around for his quinine, downs it with a glass of water, looks at himself in the mirror to see if he’s still giving off a reflection—there he is, toothless but still slim and rosy-cheeked with nearly a full head of hair—and goes back to bed.
Art’s only been alone now for a couple months, and he’s not quite used to it. His wife suffered a stroke one afternoon in October. The North County paramedics, dressed in black Can't Bustems and blue work-shirts, did what they could for her, while the radio voice from their mobile unit parked outside calmly announced to the neighborhood the details of tragedies happening elsewhere. The ambulance came to take her to the hospital, but it was too late. The doctor said he couldn’t do anything for her, and asked Art to sign a paper saying she could die. So he signed it. What else could he do?
Then there was the confusion of a family reunion, and the funeral, and a flurry of pies and noodle casseroles from sympathetic neighbors ... and now just getting used to being alone.
Art feels pretty good about it all really. He makes it easy on himself by accepting the things he can't change and going on as best he can. His strength is his humor and good nature.
He gets up at dawn with a cup of instant coffee and spends the morning doing things around the house. He puts a screen on the front door, although he got along fine without one for 20 years. He goes out in a khaki jacket and yard hat, and trims his orange trees.
“I used to eat a couple oranges every day when I got off work, and that would hold me over while I was feeling weak, you see. That would make the difference,” he offers as advice.
He even built himself a lookout tower in his backyard so he could see what the construction workers were doing in the canyon below his house, and when he got through with that he got a notion to paint it red, so he painted it red.
He watches a lot of TV in the evenings. “It’s a great comfort to someone living alone,” he says. He watches the news three or four times a day with the volume turned all the way up, so that when the paper boy comes to collect he has to shout to Art over a shrieking Barbara Walters and a booming deadpan Harry Reasoner. He watches the talk shows—Merv Griffin, Dinah. He watches The Gong Show and To Tell the Truth. He isn't too selective about it. But he doesn't care, it's all just distraction. He’ll watch them all and get a kick out of every one of them, because there’s not much else to do in the evenings.
The first time Art came to San Diego was in 1923. He’d learned the electrical trade while he was in the service in WWI, and when he got out he worked his way across the country from Cleveland and back. He liked Denver a lot, but he spent the winter in San Diego. Most of the electrical work was up in Los Angeles at that time—still, he preferred San Diego. In the spring, he went back to Cleveland and spent the next 35 years there as an electrician, until the winter of 1958, when he was 60 years old.
There was a lot of snow in Cleveland that winter, and his house was right across from the highway. Every time the snow plows went by they threw all the snow up on Art's driveway, and he had a heart attack shoveling it off. He decided then it was time to retire and come back to San Diego County.
“My father lived to be 85, and I've already made up my mind I’m not going till I'm 85.”
Art's got about everything he could ask for without being rich.
He’s got a comfortable house in a quiet neighborhood, a small car with only 14,000 miles on it, an electric garage door opener, and a color TV. He likes all these things and wouldn’t go back to simpler times for all the earth shoes and back-to-nature cereals in the country.
“You talk about pollution. That coal soot in Cleveland before they started switching to gas would settle a quarter-inch thick on everything in the house.”
He’s worked all his life in the unions, and was able to retire because of them, and because of Social Security. He’s got it pretty good compared to some old folks, and he knows it, but still he worries about money.
“The wife and I deeded the place back and forth you see. That way if one of us passed away the other’d get it. Well, now I got this tax form the other day, which I can’t make heads or tails of, the way it’s worded, but it looks like they want me to pay inheritance tax on the place, even though I paid for it by my own labor. I guess I’ll have to get me a lawyer, and I don't like lawyers anymore’n I like doctors.”
And there’re other problems. “The wife passed away on a Sunday. Well, on Tuesday her Social Security came and I went ahead and cashed it to help pay for the funeral, thinking she had that check coming. But now they say I got to pay it back, and they’ll send another check to pay for the funeral.” Art’s mostly easy-going, but these things bother him.
One day, about a month after his wife died, he started to feel a little strange. First, he got that income tax form in the mail. He read the thing over, and tried to tell himself that there was a mistake somewhere. Still, he felt the anxiety grow inside, and since there wasn’t anybody to talk his worries over with, he did the next best thing. He took a shot of whiskey in a glass of water, as the doctor said he could.
In a while he started to feel drowsy from the whiskey, although it was in the early afternoon, and he started to get those leg cramps again. So he took some quinine and drank a cup of coffee.
Pretty soon he was breathing hard but still felt numb and lightheaded. Something wasn’t right.
He got on the phone and started calling his neighbors to see if someone could take him to the doctor, but nobody was home. He didn’t want to drive himself in that condition for fear he’d hurt somebody else. He lay down on the sofa to try and relax, but he felt himself falling asleep… No! That was the one thing he didn’t want to let himself do.
Finally he went outside, crossed the street, and started going from door-to-door to find someone who could drive him to the doctor. He did, an unemployed neighbor.
At the doctor’s office Art waited.
“They want it like this,” he told his neighbor. “I’ve switched doctors about five times, and they're all the same. They want you waiting in line to see ’em. My wife got to where she wouldn’t go to the doctor for fear of all the waiting.”
He saw on the magazine rack a copy of Newsweek with the words, “The Right to Die,” in red letters across the cover. “Wonder what that's about,” he said, looking weak and confused.
When one of the nurses finally saw that Art was in trouble, she led him out of the waiting room to a dark little room at the end of the hall, and left.
There was some kind of mechanical bed covered with stiff paper. He laid down and tried to relax, but his head was too low, and his feet hung limply over the edge. He got up and tried to adjust the thing. Two clicks, three clicks brought the head up. A panel was supposed to slide out for the feet... Art’s neighbor peeked in to see how he was doing, and together they finally figured the thing out. Art lay back down and went on waiting.
The doctor passed in the hall, but quickly ducked into his office and shut the door. Art was still breathing hard, and his face had turned a glowing red. He really thought he was dying right there in the doctor’s office with no one to help.
Art started talking to stay awake. He talked about how he and his brothers used to make blood cheese when they slaughtered hogs at home in Cleveland, and how it was his job to stir the blood so it wouldn’t set. He talked about how they packed it in special intestines that came all the way from Australia because they were so tender. He talked about how they sold the cheese to the milk man, and how it was delivered by an old horse in blinders…
At last the doctor came in to see Art. He was dressed in a burgundy and white leisure suit, and talked very loudly, perhaps from working with geriatrics. Art had his sleeve rolled up expecting to have his blood pressure taken, so the doctor did that. Just then the doctor was interrupted by a phone call from Los Angeles and had to leave the room, but he came back in 10 minutes or so.
“What are you eating!” he yelled at Art. “Do you sleep well at night!” Then he just decided to come out with it. “Art, are you brooding over your wife!”
Art insisted that he wasn’t.
The doctor gave him a detailed textbook explanation of the body chemistry that takes place when a person hyperventilates, gave him a sample packet of yellow pills he was supposed to take three times a day, and told him he could go home.
“Found out after the first night that those pills were just some kind of relaxant, is all they were,” Art says. He chucked them on the bathroom counter with the rest of his collection. He prefers his whiskey.
“The doctors don’t much like this Medi-Care,” he explains. “They don’t like it one bit. I only have to pay twenty percent on it, and the Social Security pays the rest. But the doctors have raised their prices so much on some of these things that I end up paying about the same as before.”
It’s the evenings that are the toughest for Art these days, because he usually spends them alone. He doesn’t much like to cook, and eats a lot of TV dinners. “Don’t get the turkey dinners,” he says confidentially. “They’re too cheap with the white meat.”
He’s not the only older person in the neighborhood who lives alone, and they all get together from time to time. But mostly they spend their evenings at home, separated by the particular habits and conveniences of their own houses. He has some friends who entered convalescent homes, but they had to sell everything they owned to pay for it, and then didn't get the prices they should have for land they’d owned most of their lives. People with the money to buy know that old folks don’t sell unless they have to.
So Art just cranks up the TV to ward off the loneliness like it was some kind of evil spirit that only thrives in darkness and silence, fixes himself a whiskey-and-water, and sits down with the newspaper on his lap to wait out the night. He always hopes he’ll have visitors. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough, but occasionally he’ll hear a knock on the door. He greets his visitors with a chuckle of delight and a soft handshake, asks them to sit down, or change the TV to anything they like. Is it loud enough? And he mixes them a drink.
Art likes conversation, is willing to venture an opinion about anything, but mostly he likes to tell about his sons. The nearest one lives in Stockton now, and he went up there for the holidays.
He's fascinated by all technological wonders, as only someone who can remember a time without them can be. Jets that get him to Stockton in a couple hours; a drug that cures his friend’s blood disease. He’s particularly in awe of quartz crystal watches. “I don’t see how they get it all in there,” he says.
All around the house are the signs of a woman’s presence: lace doilies on the armrests of chairs, braided throw rugs over the worn spots on the carpet, family pictures on the TV. And then there are later signs of a man living alone: dirty dish towels in the kitchen, crooked lampshades, newspapers piling up in the corner.
Art’s aware, no doubt, that there are many more women than men in his age group; enough to have two or three wives if he could get away with it. But the time isn’t right yet, and so at least for now, at the age of 80, Art finds himself a bachelor once again.