By Judith Margolis
“Being alone is lousy,” Hank complained to his married daughter.
He had been devoted to his wife for fifty-three years, nursed her through five years of an awful illness, and sat by her bed during the last weeks while she stared at the ceiling, refusing food or medication, ready to go. While she drifted in and out of consciousness he said goodbye to her over and over to himself, seeing not an illness-ravaged old woman but the beautiful young girl he had married. Now she was gone, and before the van from the mortuary had turned the corner of their block, Hank started clearing out the drawers and closets of Ellie’s things.
Making and keeping appointments, he got through the paperwork of death in under a week. No longer having any reason to rush back to the apartment, he wheeled the shopping cart around the supermarket in a Muzak-induced daze. Trying to “get back to normal,” Hank ate low-cholesterol meals in front of the television, forced himself to walk briskly for twenty minutes or so at a time, and to “get out,” to his daughter’s house for dinner several times a week. Most days the Southern California summer heat forced him to stay in, the air conditioner grinding a steady backbeat to his increasingly aggravated thoughts.
He actually felt more annoyed than grief-stricken. Having already mourned his loss, day after day, all those years, helping Ellie up and down stairs, in and out of the car, to all those doctor’s appointments. And all the “accidents,” when her bowels wouldn’t hold and she cried with embarrassment while he cheerfully took care of everything.
But now he was at loose ends, with no one to worry about and nowhere to go. Ellie had always handled their social life, while he had preferred solitary errands to the library and the bank. Good at small talk and gossip, she was the one who liked to mingle at their apartment complex’s Club House, while Hank preferred to sit, legs up in the Barca-lounger, dozing under the newspaper listening to Mantovani’s 101 Strings. Even after she got sick, she liked having her wheelchair pushed out by the pool so she could chat with whoever was there. Now when he did force himself to go out to the pool in the cool evenings, he wasn’t really interested in idle conversation about the weather and other people’s grandchildren. He would end up jingling the keys in his pockets impatiently, and then stalking off scowling, speaking to no one.
“You’ve always liked projects and being busy,” his daughter’s husband advised. “Why don’t you volunteer at the hospital or take an adult education course at the Senior Center?”
“Nah,” Hank replied, “I don’t care about anything. I just don’t want to be alone.” Then one Sunday, Hank found himself poring over the calendar section of the newspaper.
It wasn’t easy to find a new life.
Despite (or because of) his own history of angiograms, nitro patches and by-pass surgery, he didn’t want to volunteer at the hospital. Taking classes wasn’t for him or Senior Aerobics. Ellie had once dragged him to a “Jammin’ to the Oldies Night,” where he swung his arms to rhythmic music while a pony-tailed youngster bounced her breasts and yelled “Go for the Burn!” No, he wasn’t eager to do that again.
There seemed to be only one possibility.
At the synagogue’s Senior Singles Lunch ‘n Dance, Hank sat at a bridge table poking his fork into a mayonnaise and tuna sandwich, grimacing against the blare of rock and roll. It was so loud he had to turn down his hearing aid and therefore wasn’t sure if the busty woman sitting next to him, wearing a silver lamé blouse and overpowering perfume, was saying “What’s your name?” or “Pass the pickles.”
He was never a dancer. Ellie had won the prizes for dancing and crazy hat contests on cruises and at hotel weekends. So he sat and let the racket wash over him for awhile, and when Bosom Lady drifted over to another bridge table, he got up and left, pulling out of the parking lot so hastily that he backed into the chain link fence and broke a tail-light.
It was four months since his wife had gone. One night as he left his daughter’s house, he remembered the awkward difficulty of slowly getting Ellie down those stairs, helping her into the passenger seat and fastening her seat belt. His daughter’s embrace didn’t comfort him at all as he abruptly gulped back his wracking, dry sobs and drove off alone in the car.
A few nights later his son-in-law had more advice. “Why not put an ad in the Personals? You don’t have to go anywhere or see anyone to do it.”
“You’re right,” Hank agreed. “It’s better if I don’t have to go anywhere or see anyone.”
That night Hank tried out different descriptions of himself on a small pad by his bed. Now a compact 5’4”, he had been “Big Hank” growing up, only because his cousin “Little Hank” never passed 5’2”. All those years of being inches taller than Ellie, he never worried about his looks. Now he suddenly wondered how he would look to someone else. Was he “young at heart?” No, that was too corny. He hated the title “widower.” It sounded so needy and lonely. What about “energetic oldster”? Or “vigorous 81-year-old”? No, the word “vigorous” was too boastful. He might as well say “still gets it up,” and that line of thinking got him down. He put the pad aside and fell asleep, while flickering blue TV shadows animated his bedroom walls.
The next week he examined the Personals again. All those “vivacious, voluptuous females” looking for “sensitive, athletic, professional men for moonlit walks and world travel” seemed out of the question. One ad caught his eye with the word “mature.” “Mature beauty, authentic redhead, great cook, independent but no feminist, wants to walk off into the sunset with the right young-at-heart guy.” When it went on to specify “60ish”, he realized that in the world of Personals he was already twenty years older than those mature enough to call themselves “mature.”
In the paper the week after that, he was invited to picture himself “rubbing feet under the table at a romantic restaurant with a “sensual grandmother” and “getting away from the rat race to make love in front of a roaring fire.” Just meeting somebody he might want to talk to seemed impossible enough. Now the ads surprised him with pop up fantasies of anonymous women touching him. And he’d remember Ellie, and all the years they slept in each other’s arms, their home together. For a few weeks he stopped looking at the paper.
Summer over, the days grew short. His daughter was preparing for an exhibit of her paintings and she wanted him to come to the opening. If Ellie were alive they would have looked forward to such an afternoon. They would have strolled in front of the large canvases arm in arm, and together felt out of place. Hank didn’t want to go to the exhibit alone.
The week before the opening, Hank forced himself to answer an ad. “Late-model (‘73) grandmother, with lots of tread left on her tires, wants to meet gentleman for companionship, and maybe more. Call...” He thought the ad was cute. The reference to cars and “companionship” seemed right. Certainly the “more” was just a maybe now. Even deciding what to watch on TV with someone else might be a trial, and he wondered if he was too set in his ways to do this. One afternoon he abruptly rose from the Barcalounger and, dialing fast before he could change his mind, he called the number.
A woman answered.
“I’m responding to your ad,” Hank blurted out.
“Oh my,” a woman replied. “Well, actually, my kids put that ad in the paper. They thought I should at least talk to the men who call. So… here I am, willing to talk.“
“Uh..” Hank was taken aback by her chatty ease, that she had somehow told him so much in a few sentences. “I’m… a widower,” he said.
“Me too,” she said, “I mean, I’m a widow. For sixteen years.”
“Oh,” said Hank, “mine just died six months ago.” Once that information was spoken the ensuing silence ballooned around him. Hank thought it might sound shocking or weird to be calling a women after only six months. Lumpish with embarrassment, he asked, “So, do you want to meet?”
“How old are you?” she asked.
“I’m seventy-nine,” he said, surprising himself with this lie. Eighty-one sounded so old. “Let’s go out next week,” Hank offered.
The woman murmured, “Well, I guess that would be okay.”
“Sunday afternoon at two o'clock. There’s an art exhibit I’d like to take you to.” He was warming to his role, now, of able gentleman taking charge. He would be quietly proud of his daughter’s paintings and she would be impressed. Maybe he wouldn’t say it was his daughter’s work until he saw if she liked them and then he’d casually let it out that...
“Two o'clock is too early, I have something else I’m doing then. How about four o'clock?”
“Well, okay.” Hank reluctantly revised his plan. He’d go to the exhibit first and then come to her. “I’ll pick you up at four then… Uh, I guess we’ll eat an early dinner.”
“I live at 621 Van Ness Drive, in Sherman Oaks,” she said. “I’ll wait for you in front of my house. It’s hard to find a space on Sundays. Four o'clock then.”
Hank stood for a while by the phone, pleased that he had actually done this thing. She lived in a town not far from him. He wrote down on a piece of paper 126 Van Ness Drive, and her phone number, and tacked it to the bulletin board over the phone. Then he realized he hadn’t asked her for her name, nor told her his. Not wanting to call back, he’d wait to find out when he picked her up on Sunday. It would give them something to talk about.
Sunday was sunny but cold in the shade, with an autumn wind blowing leaves around in aggressive gusts. As he pulled into the parking lot of the gallery, Hank thought how far he’d come. Not crying every day — having places to go — having a date!
At the exhibition, he greeted his daughter , her husband and his grandson — a tall young man — who took a picture of his mother, father and grandfather, while she mugged for the camera saying, “All my favorite men are here, I’m so glad!” and then rushed off to greet someone. The large room filled up with people.
“So,” Hank turned to the two younger men. “I took your advice, and answered a personals ad. I have a date.”
“Hey, that’s great, Grandpa!” the grandson said, and high-fived the old man. His son-in-law offered a thumbs-up, and an enthusiastic, “Wow! What’s her name?”
“Well, uh…I forgot to ask her,” Hank laughed. “But after I leave here I’m going directly to pick her up. We're going to dinner.”
He started to think about the date, about sitting across from a strange woman in a restaurant watching her chew. People who didn’t know them would think they were married. His grandson was saying something to him, gesturing to Hank’s shirt. “You have spots on your shirt. You’d better keep your jacket on.” Hank peered down his front.
“Oy, I guess I’m in trouble,” Hank said stoutly, reaching up to ruffle his grandson’s hair. “I remember taking you out to buy some clothes one night when you turned up visiting your Grandma in torn jeans and a crazy scarf around your head.”
“Touché,” his grandson answered, while his son-in-law grinned at both of them.
Just when he started to think about leaving, the crowd thinned out and his daughter came over to introduce him to the gallery director. Then they strolled across the gallery, and she said “Here, let me straighten you out, you have a whole constellation of spots on your shirt.” She turned to him and adjusted his tie and collar as if he were the boy and she the mother. “I can’t take you anywhere!” she scolded jokingly, but Hank didn’t feel too amused.
He felt a stabbing fatigue as he passed a bench in the middle of the gallery and wished he could lie down on it briefly, just to rest. Now he was sorry he had made the date. He hugged his relatives goodbye and went out into the last slanting afternoon light.
The day had grown colder. Serious blasts of wind pulled him along and he held onto the railing as he went down the steps to the parking lot. He pulled the door shut, glad to be locked in the close familiar space of his car, and pulled away.
A chocolatey rich radio voice announced the upcoming hourly news. It was much later than he thought! Now he was speeding up the freeway over the hill towards a “date,” a thought that seemed to him both amazing and ludicrous. He kept up a good clip, zigzagging in and out through the traffic. Hank liked to drive. When he was behind the wheel of a car he felt like a young man in his ‘37 Hudson. He chuckled to himself, thinking about “Miss late model,” whose name he would learn soon. Indeed, all optimistic pleasure and energy is a man in a car on his way to a date. He almost laughed out loud to realize how simply “up” he felt.
He eased over to the right lane in time for the Sherman Oaks exit, then drove through the shopping streets toward the residential district and Van Ness Drive. He pulled the Post-It note with his date’s address from his pocket and stuck it on the dashboard. 126 Van Ness. He noticed with some alarm that it was already 4:15. He would have to somehow smooth over the lateness. Would she be the kind of woman who cared? He should be there any minute. Yes, here was Van Ness and he was on the 100 block.
It was a middle class neighborhood, not the fanciest part of town but not the worst either. She’d said she’d stand in front of her “house,” but these weren’t houses, these were apartment buildings, four and five stories high, with stacked terraces and big glass doors, and names like Belle View and Manor Heights scrawled in metal script across the brick. Things didn’t seem right. He drove slowly along the street, but there was no woman standing by the curb. The wind pressed harder now, seeping through the windows of his car with moaning whirring sounds, as if he were in a wilderness, rather than a suburban street.
He continued down the block, peering into the fading afternoon light, circling around the slow advance twice. Then he drove back toward the shopping district until he saw a public phone. Standing in the open door of the phone booth, he held up the slip of paper on which he had written the address and phone number. Maybe the 126 address wasn’t right. Maybe she’d said 621? Or was it 216? He was sweating now, despite the chill wind, which tugged insistently at his jacket, while he dug in his pocket for some change. He started to dial the number and got through four of the digits before the wind plucked the little note out of his hand and whisked it away. Leaving the phone dangling mid-dial, he lunged for the scrap of paper as it twirled up in a loop. His glasses fogged up in his own steamy breath. The note was impossible to see as the wind carried it up into the deepening twilight, just out of reach.
He drove back to Van Ness Drive cruising past the number 100 addresses, and for several blocks after that, but still no one was waiting. He headed back the twenty-minute drive through the dark streets to his own neighborhood, pulled into his parking space and turned off the ignition. All the golden light of the day was spent.
In his own apartment again, Hank threw down his jacket, and rushed to find the newspaper in which he’d first seen the ad. All the newspapers from several weeks were stacked in a messy pile on one of the dining room chairs. He shuffled through the pages, scanning dates and sections for the right one. Then he remembered. He’d thrown that section of the paper away the day before, wrapped around a melon whose juice and seeds had made a sodden mess.
Not giving up, Hank strode purposefully across the brief length of his living room out to the carpeted beige hallway. One by one, he knocked on each door, asking startled people he hadn’t spoken to since Ellie died if they had last week’s Sunday paper. Refusing invitations to come in and shmooze, he worked his way to the top floor to a neighbor widow with metallic hair. While asking her if she had that particular day’s paper, it dimly occurred to him that he might have insulted her with his indifference, when she’d showed up after Ellie died with a casserole and blurted out, “I’ve had my eye on you since Sy died; why waste time?” Yes, she had the paper. She gestured for him to come in. Aware of, and ignoring, the awkwardness, he fumbled through the sheets until he got to the Personals page and wrote down Miss late-model’s phone number. Hank mumbled hasty goodbyes and left while Neighbor-Lady stood by, arms folded unforgivingly across her bosom.
Back in his apartment, Hank dialed the number. Just as someone picked up the phone, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the ornate wall mirror that he and Ellie had bought so many years ago for their first Bronx apartment. The front of his shirt was covered with dark stains!
“It’s me, Hank,” he said. “I—”
“Go to hell,” a woman’s voice said. She hung up.
Surprising tears crept down his cheeks as Hank’s throat closed around a sob, while the insistent trill of the dial tone reminded him to hang up. Then, as if disconnecting the line changed a channel in his head from Sad Drama to Comedy, he started to smile at his own meshugena kop. And then to grin at his disheveled clothes. And, sharing the joke with his own mirrored reflection — to laugh at himself for being so hurt by a furious woman whose name he didn’t even know.
Hank cleared the old papers off the dining room table and put a pot of water on the stove for coffee. He went into his bedroom to get the pad of paper from his bedside and put it at his place on the table, with a freshly sharpened pencil and several ballpoint pens. He pulled a box of rugelach out of the freezer and, while it warmed up in the microwave, fixed himself a big mug of coffee with milk and sugar. Before he sat down, he put one of Ellie’s cassettes of Broadway show tunes on the stereo. Then, bringing the cake within easy reach and humming along to the music, he sat at the table for the rest of the evening, and worked on his Personals.