2045: Old Man, Summer Night

Turnersburg, Friday night in June. Most folks home devicing the local news, local meaning Fairview, the larger statezone fifty kilometers up Route 063, where the data station makes its home. The late-night anchor is young, looks to be twenty-two going on sixteen. Strange how he reminds people in Turnersburg of Henry Taylor’s teenage son—his oldest—killed this past March in a drunken fall off his grandparents’ deckporch. For some, the resemblance is an odd comfort; others can hardly bear to look at their vuScreens. The anchor’s narrow-boned face is too white in the glare of the studio lights, his custard-blond hair too stiff with Prod. So stiff it doesn’t move in the least when he turns to make small talk with the weatherperson and, later, Our Very Own Dan-the-Man O’Callahan with Sports!

Out on Springfield Boulevard, teenage boys, and older buddies in their twenties who’ve never left the area, cruise across the county line in their jacked-up truTrux and buzzy cars. Out into the country darkness and then back into town, past the two digiMalls and Google World. Again and again and again. None of them understanding that this high-speed backing and forthing mimics what they’d like to be doing with the women who fill the glass pages of the vuDox slid under their mattresses. Knowing only that it feels good to guzzle nuBrew and stomp on the accelerator, whooping and hollering as the wind whips through their open windows.

Meanwhile, on the far side of town, in a stone cottage at the end of a quiet lane—an elbow hook off Catalpa Place (itself a quiet, dead-end street)—the vuScreen has been on the fritz for months; the noises made by the teenage racers are nothing more than low rumbles. It’s doubtful that the revving of the engines and the sino–punk funk pounding through backseat speakers—chest-rattling and dangerous-sounding up close, but white-noise benign at this distance—wake the old man. More likely, as usual, it’s his wife—his second wife, nineteen years his junior—flat on her back beside him. For a moment, in his confusion as he arises from a dream, the old man wonders if her snoring is causing the bedroom’s window curtains to move. She breathes out, and the drapes press against the screen. She breathes in, and they release and billow above the sill. But then he feels the breeze from outside.

The man is a light sleeper. His wife’s snoring and sleep-talk whispering wake him practically every night. Not that he minds. He enjoys lying in bed, listening to the faraway traffic as though it were a river, staring up at the plasterized ceiling (eyes fully adjusted to the dark, no need to reach for the bedside lamp), and then getting up, shuffling in nightshirt and slippers across the braided rug and out of the room, easing the door shut behind him.

Through the kitchen, onto the slight tilt of the back deckporch, he retrieves the coffee can, box of matches, and half-pack of truSmokes he hides behind the glider sofa. The crack of a match head against the side of the sturdy box, and he lights his first sickoret. Pulls in the sweet smoke as he lowers himself onto the sofa and leans back. Certain his wife suspects his habit, but she’s yet to catch him red-handed.

Eighty-two, been smoking on and off since he was sixteen, not about to quit at this point in his life. Besides, he’s down to two or three at these late-night sessions; what’s the harm for an old man? Would be happy to tell anyone who’d listen this very thing, even his wife. But he doesn’t want to argue with her. Doesn’t have the energy for it. Wouldn’t be any fun.

He and his first wife, on the other hand—godness, the fun they had. The knock-down, drag-out battles, followed by the make-up sex on the kitchen table, him on his tiptoes, careful to avoid the blue and green shards of glass littering the floor, all that remained of the bottles and jars she’d hurled. He knows this happened only once or twice but doesn’t try to retool his memory. Prefers to believe that this kind of impulsive passion defined who and what they were.

No such passion with wife number two. Oh, she looks after him well enough—more than well enough: like a firstborn golden child, making sure he’s well fed, comfortable, content. And she’s “peppy,” a term his brother liked to tease him with before he died driving home drunk from their wedding. But the old man worries: Beyond a simple appreciation for her companionship, there often isn’t anything more.

Another drag off his sickoret, these thoughts swirling with the nicotine in his brain, unsettling him as usual. Blue smoke swirls above his head. Five miles away, under a half moon and a ceiling of stars, the red-eyed towers atop Mount Wilson wink at him in slow motion. He rubs his bad leg and lets his breath go. Crushes the butt in the coffee can and lights another sickstick, cursing quietly. Why does he torture himself every night, talking himself out of love with wife number two, conjuring his dead first wife, his dead baby brother?

All at once, though, the ghosts retreat as the wind gusts, carrying with it the scent of wild honeysuckle—the first he’s noticed this year—from the overgrowth just beyond the stockade fence in his backyard. The aroma is relief. He sucks it in gratefully. In his eighty-two years, he’s yet to hear a word more apt than “intoxicating” to describe honeysuckle’s ability to soothe, to smooth over, with sudden, vivid remembrances: Summers more than sixty, seventy years ago. Grade school footraces through fields of tall grass. Boyhood crushes; teenage lust—and rebellion. First love.

At that very moment, a quickening of his blood: whispers and laughter. He stubs out his sickstick and stills the motion of the glider. Watches with cat’s eyes as a young couple emerges from behind the fence, holding hands, the old man struck by this coincidental vision, like a video from his youth. They make their way up the footpath that runs next to the cottage toward the lane, the boy sticklike, his voice echoing and teasing. The girl laughs and scolds in response. They stop to embrace before continuing along the path and out of sight. A minute later, doors slam in front of the cottage and car lights sweep the branches of the oak trees towering above the back deckporch.

The old man is briefly unsure if what he’s just witnessed actually happened; almost sure he’s not that senile. Is he still dreaming? He knows he isn’t. He shakes his head and grins as he thinks about the couple. Then he fumbles with his half-pack of truSmokes, returns everything to its hiding place, and goes back inside.

By the time he’s climbed into bed, the boy and girl have reached the top of Catalpa Place, where they sit idling in the boy’s brand-new beep-jeep. The boy lights a sickstick and peers through his windshield, blowing smoke, noticing the stars shining brilliantly. He puts the jeep in gear and steers toward the other side of town, the girl beside him, eyes on the road. After their special evening together—dinner at the Google World Cafe, followed by a romantic evening stroll, the early summer air soft and fragrant—she hesitates before whispering her secret.

The boy is silent at first; makes no sign whatsoever that he’s heard her. Then flicks his sickoret out the window, showering orange sparks. He has plans, doesn’t she understand that? He loves her but, godness, no way he’s ready to be a father. His voice fills the small space as the beep-jeep flies faster and faster.

The girl begs him to slow down, just for one damn minute so they can talk, figure everything out. But he doesn’t want to talk now, doesn’t want to listen. He speeds along Bedrock Avenue, Springfield Boulevard, and, minutes later, over the county line, turning to her again only when they’ve driven out into the country darkness. Grabs her wrist when she tries to interrupt and swerves into the path of the jacked-up truTrux and buzzy cars heading the other way, toward the digiMalls and Google World.

Emergency vehix on Springfield Boulevard. The data station’s late-night anchor interrupts The Tonight Show with Breaking News from Turnersburg.

The sounds of traffic, though, are no more than low rumbles along the lane where the old man lives; the vuScreen in the cottage has been on the fritz for months. He lies awake, still picturing the young couple, grateful that their sudden appearance brought him to his senses, dissolving his obsessive thoughts of disappointment and death. He listens to his wife beside him, settled now, breathing quietly, and takes in the intoxicating scent of the wild honeysuckle, carried in on the breeze that causes the bedroom’s window curtains to move.

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