Century Man (15sec)

READ SHORT STORY (about 1900 words)

What surprises me most was not how its past intimidation had diminished (dying used to seem daunting), but how mundane the notion had become after contemplating it for so long.

Looking out over the panorama from this ocean precipice, it occurs to me that the broader angst of life’s vagaries and heartaches have already evanesced into obscurity: A welcome relief on this end of days.

Although considerations about success, failure, relationships, money, illness and infirmity, as well as decisions that changed the course of life, have each lessened in importance over time, it is only now that I feel a marked release of their weight. Excepting one persistent nuisance to contrast with the better recollections.

On past birthdays, I’ve been told that I should be thankful that I’ve been blessed with longevity. But here on my hundredth, I’m not so sure.

Anyone over a certain age knows the cost of loss. My wife, Ethel, passed some thirty years ago. I’ve outlived my three children and long-time friends. Who would count such as blessings? Although, while they were alive, they were, indeed.

Even my one enemy is long gone. Although he’s never escaped my mind.

In recent years my primary goal was to make it to today. But I can’t say it was a worthy pursuit. The goal itself was really the vestige of a gag between Ethel and I long before cancer had found in her a worthy home. We both joked years earlier that if we lived to be a hundred, we would share a kiss and a rose, as we did when we agreed to go steady near the end of high school.

The torment of living has not been slight. Between chronic arthritis, routine breathing problems, periodic sickness and every manner of ache or pain, I have often wondered why I have endured it all for so long.

I’ve been told the daily medications have kept me alive. But they are more than a nuisance: they’ve engendered a constant state of unease while maintaining a veil of living murkiness. Yet, right now, I am more aware, alert and alive than I’ve felt in years — having surreptitiously forgone the meds these past few days.

Nevertheless, standing on this precipice of the unknown is humbling, even though, for me, it represents the potential for a long-sought peace from a world that has evolved in unfamiliar ways. Does mankind ever really learn from the past? I have certainly observed in myself, as well as others who have reached later years, a softening of harsher inclinations. If only that might be imbued through the world at large.

But that’s a concern for those with a future.

The relentless advance of Father Time may not have eroded mankind’s darker compulsions, but there is no doubting he has continued to claim more of this precipice. The very edge I’m standing on used to be about fifty feet closer to forever, although other sections of the promontory have eroded less.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the call of the waves. The surf’s caress of the rocks far below is as constant as it’s inviting. At high tide, its roiling passion washes the cliff bottom with an undulating and beckoning roar, while the shifting tides whimsically exchange nature’s and mankind’s miscellanea between beach and sea.

It took considerable planning (scheming) to make it outside, unchaperoned — and free — to spend much of the afternoon shuffling up a hill that I used to jog in 15 minutes. But that was long ago. The fact that I made it up at all — on my own — will soon be an additional conversation point for the younger geezers, grannies and staff back at the home. Even if they will never know the care I took to carry this one red rose.

The dirt trail has widened with increased foot traffic over the years, although there was no one visible in any direction, as was often the case on many of the times I’ve stood here in past Central California winters. It was the summer sun that attracted the majority.

This dilapidated skeleton has outlived its purpose. It’s no more representative of who I am than any of the cars I’ve bought and driven over the decades. Each provides some period of good use until their inevitable decay renders them unfit for service.

Back at the home, some of the oldsters have spoken about heaven and hell. I don’t know what will transpire, but I suspect those two notions won’t. Although I find the promise of a permanent vacation without being debilitated by age somewhat appealing, I do not consider I’ve been good enough to be such a beneficiary. Nor do I consider that I’ve been so bad as to be banished to eternal damnation. Despite, so long ago, when Ethel expressed such to be my destination after I inadvertently spilled white paint on top of her three pumpkin pies that were cooling in preparation for Thanksgiving the following day. Nor did it matter that it was she who encouraged (demanded) that I touch up the ceiling in advance of the next day’s visitors.

Anyway, I doubt any external force could impute greater woe to myself than I. Perhaps this long-lived mental curse may now end.

However, my experience with Ethel, when she passed, makes me think consciousness continues in some form. I just hope that if memories do go on, the bad ones won’t. But really, that would seem to require selective forgetting.

Philosophical meanderings aside, after Ethel passed as I held her hand, we continued to wordlessly chat for a while thereafter. She expressed that the pain was gone and was surprised at how energetic she felt. A little while later, she even warned me that a car was coming when I was somberly (and distractedly) backing out from the hospital parking space. Of course, she often did that while she was alive when there was no cause for concern. After all those years of backseat driving, that was the first time I was appreciative of her admonishment.

Having said all that, if the reality of nothingness should be the result of a fresh cadaver, then I won’t have the opportunity to complain. At least the haunting will be gone.

Right now, my view is of serenity: an exhibit of orange stripes rippling over a darkening, watery canvas, reflecting the rays of a sky pointing towards the brightness of eternity.

The tips of my shoes extend over the cliff. As I look down beyond my toes, it’s remarkable that I feel no fear, in contrast to a lifelong apprehension anytime I was near the edge of height. For all the years I’ve stood at this vantage, I usually never approached closer than four or five feet from the edge. Ethel thought I was being a good role model when the kids were small and she would tell them to not get any closer than their father. Back then, as now, there were no barriers to prevent folks from inadvertently going over. At some point, a railing and warning sign was posted. But after years they eventually fell with the receding real estate. Ironically, if one looked carefully, there was still a rusting sign near the bottom of the cliff: “Danger. Unstable Cliffs. Stay Back.”

Who knows exactly when I became afraid of heights. I recall as a child I used to climb tall trees and was enthralled by the views with no trace of dread. Maybe it was after I became a parent and recognized the responsibility I had to support my family’s survival. As a result, I gave up motorcycles, cigarettes and heavy drinking with the boys.

More likely, it was a result of that unforgivable encounter.

He was a stranger then. But he has since harassed my conscience ever so continuously, that his acquaintance is as familiar as any of my family. Although, unlike family, let’s not forget that he made it clear to the jury how much he hated me while repeatedly cursing my existence to eternal perdition.

I do not blame him.

Who could?

Although I have spent my life since then trying to atone, the haunting has never subsided.

Yet, right now, I feel no fear.

Indeed, eternity beckons. Whatever shall it divulge?

All I know for sure is that I’ve waited too long.

I wish this tiny piece of dirt suspending me this high above the ocean would give way as if the earth was gifting a tiny piece of itself to honor the sanctity of the moment.

Alas, the sanctity of any moment appears to me now as something only I might ascribe. And most of them would be with Ethel.

Such wishful thinking of the earth is merely a fleeting nod to the transition from self-importance. It cares no more for my passing than it does for the ten decades it took me to get here. It’s a timeless inevitability. Even this world and its golden sunshine will one day cease.

And so, one would hope, will also cease this bad memory. Regardless that I was found not guilty, eighty years of remorse have not assuaged my lament for crippling him. His only misdeed was being drunk and jaywalking suddenly in front of my car. Since then, I ceaselessly see him falling and falling into oblivion.

It was never proven that I was going faster than the posted speed limit. But I was.

Furthermore, I was especially tired driving home from the late shift. Why? Because, I too, had been drinking too much. But, perversely, not that night. If I had stopped at the bar, I wouldn’t have been driving by at that exact moment. Paradoxically, the one night I didn’t drink, I maimed a man who was me every other night.

And so marked the distinction whereby my entire existence became defined as either before or after.

I may not be guilty per the law, but all these years of agreeing with his hostility have been more justice than any legal findings could render.

On a positive note, whether true or not, I like to think that afterward, I have become a better human.

“Thank you,” I uttered aloud to the sunset. And to a dead man who despised me for good cause. For he drove me to be more empathetic than I might have otherwise.

And so here I am, just as tired as I’m ready.

The rose was getting heavy in my decrepit hands. I stared at it, transfixed by its beauty and all the attendant memories of earlier roses. One for each of Ethel’s birthdays and many others throughout our years together.

So, in the end, where do one’s memories go?

As I inhale the salty air and fragrance of the rose, never previously so enlivening, I thank her for all the happy birthdays we shared and slowly exhale in surrender to the splendor.

by George Alger