The Art of Tetman Callis The Age of Death

The Age of Death

First published in Sunspot Literary Journal, Vol. 4, Issue #2. Copyright 2022 by Tetman Callis.

I gotcha, Dad. I gotcha.

I know it hurts, Dad. It’ll be over soon.

No, Dad. No. You can’t get up. I’m sorry, but you can’t. If you try to get up you’ll fall down and we won’t be able to pick you up and get you back in bed, there’s only me and Mom here and we’re not strong enough.

No, Dad.

It’s all right, Dad. Everything is okay, it’s going to be okay.

It didn’t matter what book it was. Hard to concentrate.

The time was early and the car was mostly empty.

That girl, she was very pretty. Up by the other door. She sat and focused on her phone.

Specter didn’t want her to catch him looking. He didn’t stare. Looked around, eyes going here and there, taking things in, watching out, the way you do in the city.

There was an angry guy in the car. Young man, maybe twenties. He muttered and cursed.

The girl ignored him. But you could see she knew he was there. You could see her tense up, even from the other end of the car.

Specter kept an eye out. A wary eye, and an ear, too. What would he do if the angry young man went off? Specter was pushing sixty. He’d push the intercom button and call for help.

The angry young man got off at the next stop. Specter watched him giving forearm blows to a shelter at the stop as the train pulled away.

The girl got off two stops later. Specter missed her as soon as she was gone. He missed them all.

Illinois was farms. Missouri wooded mountains. Downtown Dallas steel and glass and bright reflections. The approach path into El Paso over low brown desert mountains—he hiked those mountains when he was young.

Cats at the motel. One in the parking lot, in the glare of headlights. Then another, and another, and more. Cats in the bushes and hedges. Furtive felines, their own society, together but apart.

Specter and his mom sit at the dining table in his mom’s house. Had been his mom and dad’s, now hers alone. They had been together a long time. A lifetime. He can see the loneliness.

Specter and his mom eat chicken noodle soup and share an orange. Talk of his dad’s things, of money.

No, Mom. Don’t give me any. I don’t want it and I won’t take it.

This was only half true. He did want it. But he wouldn’t take it. Think of what people would say.

His parents reached the age of death. That long voyage through time that only the truly fortunate are cursed to endure. Friends and family dropping away, one by one, faster and faster.

His mom’s best friend, emphysemic, smoked long white cigarettes, later was connected by a long clear tube to a wheeled tank, gone after three frantic days of telephoning family and wandering the streets.

His dad’s best friend, long wheelchair-bound, body breaking down piece by piece, system by system, gone one morning after a hemorrhagic flood from the nose, bursting from within his skull.

Then his father, worn out by the decades, kidneys shutting down, liver shutting down, appetite gone, fitfully awake in pain and unquenchable thirst, sent home from the hospital to die in his own bed. Hospitals are places for those who may live. Every death in a hospital is an accidental death.

The widow is crippled in one arm and has a speech impediment. She comes to Specter’s mom’s house two days after Specter’s dad has died, before Specter’s dad has been rendered into ash and fragments.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

The widow brings an Arby’s and a Pepsi to give to Specter’s mom, though Specter’s mom does not eat and drink Arby’s and Pepsi. And lately she hadn’t been eating or drinking much at all. Her husband had been dying, suffering, it takes one’s appetite away.

I came to see what you were going to do with your husband’s bed. It’s a good bed. Can I have it?

Specter pulls up in his rental in the space in front of his motel room. Cats scatter. Two people, a couple, man and woman, are at the door to his room, trying to get in. Specter gets out of his car.

Excuse me, but what are you doing?

They explain and it’s a misunderstanding, misdirection by the desk clerk, the motel’s layout is confusing.

I’m sorry, I don’t know where your room is, but it is not right here.

Specter walks the neighborhood from one end to the other, wending up and down various streets. He hasn’t walked it like this since he was a restless teenager, prowling on foot, looking for friendship and love. He walks by houses he hasn’t walked by in over forty years. Much has changed. The cars, of course. The yards, drought and rationing have brought an end to green grass and now the yards are all stone and concrete. The people, he knows they have all changed, moved away or died. He doesn’t know anyone who still lives here besides his mom and dad, now just his mom.

He stops in front of Winter’s house. Stands on the sidewalk, big and bold as brass on a sunny desert day. Someone comes out? Comes out to say, What are you doing? Why are you staring at my house? But no one comes out. He almost didn’t recognize the house. Its façade mostly brick, the color hasn’t changed, though it’s not the color he remembers. But he remembers the porch. He remembers the front door, the direction it faced. He remembers where

on the block the house was at, what part of the block, which side of the street. There’s only one house in this part of the block with a front door that faces that direction, so this must be the one. He remembers one night, he and Winter stood on this porch, and the things they did and said. He was sixteen and she was fourteen. They had forever.

He can’t stand there forever. He turns around to look across the street. He knows Evie lived in one of those houses. He’s pretty sure he knows which one. He lived there too, for a while, when he was down on his luck and Evie talked her mom into taking him in. He stayed until he wore out his welcome, and then he left.

He walks on. Block after block. There is no one out.

He reaches the block where he grew up. He walks up it. He has made this walk several times already in the years since he left, since his parents moved a few blocks away to the house his mom lives in now and his dad died in. Here, this block, when he was growing up here, no one died. He doesn’t need to rifle through his memories as he walks up this block to the cross-street. There are too many of them, and he has been over them over and over.

He turns left and continues. A half-block on he passes the corner where he and Tina first kissed. He stops and contemplates. He didn’t remember that telephone pole.

He walks on. He is going to Tina’s house. He knows she doesn’t live there anymore. She left years ago, and as far as that goes, it goes all the way to the end. He knows she died a dozen years ago. He goes to her house anyway, to see it again, closer than he’s been since their days together in school.

He doesn’t remember the address, but he remembers the house. He stands and looks. The driveway where Tina and he made out one spring afternoon after school, hidden from view behind her father’s car, unbuttoning and unfastening. The driveway now shaded by an awning, aluminum siding held up on thin poles. Beyond the drive, the window on the wall of the

converted garage that was Tina’s bedroom. The things they did there. Beside the driveway, between it and the house next door, the place that was grassed and cool and where he and Tina and their friends gathered to drink soft drinks and smoke cigarettes and incessantly shoot the breeze on any clement evening. It’s now paved. Pure flat concrete, gray in the weak sunlight.

He walks on. Down the block and to the right and past the junior high school. They don’t call them junior high schools anymore. Middle schools now. It’s being torn down. Its parking lot and part of its athletic field dotted with a formation of portable classrooms, the old structure is being razed so that something new and modern can be erected in its place. No more nostalgic visits to its halls from old graduates.

He turns and heads back to his mom’s house. It’s a long walk. The neighborhood was new when he grew up here. Now everything looks tattered and worn. His cell phone buzzes in his pocket but he doesn’t answer.

The only time he watches television anymore is in motels. He doesn’t travel often. Television is so strange. The constant hectoring and manipulation. Buy this. Do that. Go here. Be concerned. Constantly there’s something to concern you in all that doesn’t concern you. Make it yours. Worry. Fret. Be outraged. Be afraid of lacking everything you lack.

The ceremony is this morning and he finishes getting dressed. Doesn’t often have chance or call to wear a suit. Checks his look. Tie is straight.

The white limousine pulled up in front of the house. Specter and his mom walked down the driveway. Slowly, she’s old.

The honor guard in the cemetery snapped to attention as the limo slowly passed.

There were friends there. Friends of his dad’s and his mom’s. Not many. His parents were quiet people, kept to themselves, their home, their flowers and trees and bushes and small patch of real lawn out back where the City couldn’t see how often they watered.

A cloudy and chilly day. The seasonal winds already beginning. The man from the funeral home had a blanket to spread over Specter’s mom’s lap where she sat on the bench. The urn containing the ashes of her husband was placed on the bier. In a moment, the minister and the man from the funeral home moved it one level lower so it wouldn’t be knocked over by the wind.

The honor guard folded the flag. Precisely, in careful time and with serious intent. One of the guard brought the folded flag to Specter’s mom, knelt in front of her, murmured some words, presented to her the flag.

The honor guard fired the volley, the shots loud in the cold late morning. The bugler played “Taps,” the notes clear and long.

There were things to go through back at the house, papers to sort.

A boxing match on television at the motel. Nothing Specter would ordinarily watch, but when you travel . . . the match went ten rounds and Specter watched them all. Thought about his dad.

Specter’s dad taught him to throw a forearm blow and not to throw a punch. Taught him to do whatever it took.

Don’t be afraid to pick up an equalizer.

An equalizer, Dad?

Yeah, like a two-by-four.

Specter’s dad had been a sergeant, had fought in wars.

The match was a split decision. The former champ won on points. It could’ve gone either way.

Cats in the motel parking lot at dawn. Furtive and feline, leave us alone, this life is hard.

Breakfast at sunrise. Specter sat in a booth at the diner, ate his bacon and eggs and drank his coffee, watched while the sun illuminated the mountains, rugged and treeless peaks dusted with snow.

At the airport there were Border Patrol agents in combat fatigues, carrying automatic rifles. What invasion at the airport were they waiting for? Specter was glad he was of the race that most readily passed.

He had an aisle seat on the flight back. The seat beside him was empty, a rarity on flights. A young woman sat in the window seat, drew the shade, leaned her head to sleep. Specter stared at the pages of his book. The baby in the row ahead was quiet. There was another baby farther back in the cabin, cried a bit. Specter thought as to how we were all babies once. Every one of us, carried and coddled and cared for, every need attended to.

Hush, little baby. Don’t you cry. You’ll be a grown-up, by and by.

Hush, little baby. It’s going to be all right. You’re okay. Mommy’s right here. She’s okay. Daddy’s waiting at home and he’s okay, too.

Hush, little baby.