Paul Lerner opens his eyes. Sun is slanting through the bedroom blinds. This means that the first Monday of the new year, 2019, will be clear but cold in the Sacramento Valley. It has been the same for the last week; the government authorities will soon be issuing the usual warnings of a California drought. Paul looks at the bedside clock, 8:30, then at the other side of the bed; his wife Sally is already up. He should be getting up, too. At least he’s gotten through another night. Every time he thinks this he recalls an “Observations” column he’d written referring to the author Philip Roth, who’d told an interviewer he’d smile every time he’d get through another night and through another day. Then Roth had passed away at age 85.
Paul’s birthday almost coincided with the end of the year. On December 30th he’d become 89, one year short of 90. He still can’t quite believe it; 79 maybe, but 89; how could that be? Maybe there was an arithmetical error. But his birth date is December 30, 1929, the date he’d entered on numerous documents, and 2018 minus 1929 gave you 89. Still … Well, he’d better get out of bed and see if he can get through another day, another day that would bring him one step closer to 90.
Sally has set out their juice and their arrays of pills and is making their coffee. They have their usual morning conversation, each asking the other about their night’s sleep. Like many other oldsters, they both suffer from insomnia and take sleep aids. Sally says she’d slept to about seven, then had stayed in bed for over an hour but couldn’t get back to sleep and so had gotten up. Paul says he’d slept okay. Sally tells him they were almost out of milk and a few other things. Paul says he’ll go to their local Safeway that morning. Sally tells him she has an Art Club meeting that afternoon and she probably won’t have time to cook anything for supper. Paul says he’s rustle something up, a TV dinner or some soup. Paul says Good Morning to Alexa, the Echo dot he’d gotten Sally for Christmas. He already had one in his computer room. Alexa says good morning and tells them of some notable event that had occurred on that date.
Paul and Sally live in a Northern California retirement community which has many clubs and committees and Sally was still active in some of them. Paul has withdrawn from his activities as he’s gotten older but still writes his “Observations” column for their monthly senior paper as well as a column he calls “Favorite Restaurants.” He started “Favorite Restaurants” when he observed that most of the wives at their retirement community, Sally included, were tired of cooking and that their favorite topic of conversation there was where to eat out. “Favorite Restaurants” was very popular with readers of their senior paper. He didn’t know about “Observations,” but every now and then someone would comment on it.
After taking all of his pills, each protecting against something but having possible side effects that were even worse, Paul prepares his breakfast, cereal with the fruit that was supposed to be good for seniors. While doing so, a song, as usual, is running through his head. Over Christmas it had been God rest ye merry gentleman. During New Year’s it had been Auld Lang Syne. This morning, for some reason, it’s What the World Needs Now. After finishing the cereal, Paul takes his coffee and the morning crossword puzzle out to their patio, enclosed, for what should be a pleasant half hour or so. But it ‘s usually marred by something---a sneeze, a coughing fit, a running nose---and now he’d begun to notice his fingers were stiff and it hurt to bend them, especially, for some reason, his left thumb. Another gift of old age.
After finishing his coffee, and the crossword puzzle, with just his nose running a little, Paul does his bathroom business, which has become something of an adventure, shaves, as he was going out in public, then gets dressed, also something of an adventure, especially getting on his socks and shoes. He then goes to his computer. The first thing he does is look at the e-mails that have accumulated overnight. Many of them, including from the political party he was registered in, asked for money, but at least some were ready to loan him money. Maybe there’s a connection. Paul quickly goes through the spam mails, deleting all except one from the editor of an online magazine he contributes short stories to. The editor, who is English and lives in London, advises him that the January issue was up and his story is in it. He also says that the Brexit issue was about to wreck his country. Paul next checks the stock market, down, and the latest news, not good. Then it’s time to make up his shopping list and go to Safeway, also to his bank to deposit the check he’s received for his latest columns. He doesn’t get paid for his stories but does get paid for what he thinks of as his journalism.
Paul looks at the list of items Sally had made for him to get. As usual, the milk and a few other things she’d mentioned had grown to about a dozen items. He adds a couple of things he wants to get and puts the list in his pocket. Then he puts his check and a deposit slip in his wallet. He’s about to go out to the garage when he remembers, he needs to get the bags they now take to the store since it stopped providing their paper bags or he would but charged for them. He’d almost forgotten them, not for the first time, and thought, not for the first time, that his memory bank is getting smaller and smaller. He’d remembered the shopping list and the check and deposit slip but not the bags. He was down to remembering maybe two or three things at a time. Maybe that would go down to one or two. He hoped it wouldn’t go down to zero.
* * *
Paul has come to dislike driving but he’d renewed his driving license the week before his birthday. He didn’t want to give up the option of driving, as he was now going to the Safeway. From all the horrible things he’d read about the California Department of Motor Vehicles he’d expected a nightmare at the local office. He’d made an appointment about six weeks before, thinking he’d get one in a week or two but a week before his birthday was the earliest available. As he was dealing with a computer he had no choice but to take it. He’d studied the driving license test online but by the time of his appointment had of course forgotten all about it and had done a quick brush-up the night before. To his surprise, all goes smoothly at the DMV. He goes to the appointments window and even though he’s early is directed to another window where a nice lady tells him to sit at a computer where he fills out an application, which includes giving his date of birth, to renew his license. December 30, 1929; he can’t get away from it.
He has to wait to go to the next window but not too long and there he pays for the license and takes the vision test. Some of the letters look blurry but evidently he passes as the lady at the window doesn’t refund his money. He then goes back to the window where the computer is and takes the driving test online. Luckily, most of the questions are pretty logical, like when you come to an intersection and a pedestrian starts walking in front of you the correct answer is not (a) you honk your horn at him or (b) you hit him, but (c) you wait until he’s passed. On the driving test honking your horn is always incorrect. The computer says he’s passed the test and he gets his new license. That takes care of it for the next five years. He’s not sure he’ll still be driving at the end of this year.
Paul hears a horn honking at him. He’s not driving fast enough for the car behind him. When he was younger and saw an old guy with a cap in the car ahead of him Paul knew he had to pass him. Now he’s the old guy in the cap. Evidently the driver of the car behind him doesn’t know the driving test says he shouldn’t honk his horn. He resists the urge to give the driver the finger. You never knew, the driver might have a gun and shoot him in a fit of road rage. He reaches Safeway and finds a handicapped parking space and puts up his placard he’d gotten after his surgery for a hip replacement. Before going to the Safeway he walks over to his bank and deposits his check. The young woman teller asks to see some identification and he shows her his driver’s license. He thinks, Why would anyone else be putting money into his checking account? He briefly thinks about asking the teller this but refrains.
In the Safeway he’s struggling to open up one of those plastic bags you get from a roller when a lady hands him an already opened bag. He takes the bag and mutters a thank you. A can of peaches he takes from the shelf somehow slips out of his hands (maybe it’s his stiff fingers) and rolls away. A young guy retrieves it and hands it to him. He doesn’t thank the young man. At the checkout counter the clerk asks if he needed help going out. He says No, he doesn’t. She looks doubtful. He thinks, maybe he doesn’t believe he’s 89 but to other people it seems to be apparent that he’s pretty old. He manages to get everything into the trunk. He wishes somebody would be there to help him unload when he gets back home.
* * *
Paul has collapsed into his chair after unloading his car. Sally is putting the things he bought in their proper places. The trip to the store has just about worn him out. He wonders how much longer he can keep doing it. After a while he goes into the kitchen and makes a sandwich for lunch. He looks through the latest New Yorker while eating. The magazine has gotten pretty bad; even the cartoons aren’t that funny. It’s violently anti-Trump and the first item in The Talk of the Town is guaranteed to be a Trump-bash. Paul has always thought Trump was a sleaze and an idiot but thinks the Democrats in their single-minded “Resistance” are just as bad if not worse. He’s sure his subscription to the New Yorker has run out but magazines hate to lose a subscriber and the magazine keeps coming.
Something is nagging at Paul’s mind and he remembers that coming back to the house he’d noticed the walkway was covered with leaves. Every time there’s a windy day the leaves from their big tree in the front yard and all the other trees on the block end up in front of their door. He lifts himself out of the chair, puts the lunch stuff away, and goes out to sweep up the leaves. When he’s done Sally thanks him for clearing the path, just in case someone comes, then she’s off to her club meeting. Before she leaves, she tells Paul the dishes in the dishwasher are clean and asks him to put them away. Another chore. Paul says he’ll do it later.
He turns on the television and watches the afternoon news shows. One thing about Trump, since he became President there’s a new story almost every day---immigration and the wall, the big Supreme Court battle, North Korea, Syria, Iran, China, NATO and of course the never-ending Mueller investigation. Paul thinks the 2016 election offered Americans the worst choices in history---Trump or Hillary. He’d written a series of stories about a planet named Spielberg in a distant galaxy which was far more advanced than Earth and whose Earth Council meets annually to discuss whether that pesky minor planet should be wiped out once and for all. They keep on finding one reason or another to delay this action but when they are told the two candidates for the American election are Trump or Hillary they vote unanimously to send one of their battleships to wipe out Earth. Now he thinks that the 2020 election, which has already started in the media, might be even worse. And England, with Brexit, is in almost as bad a shape. It’s a good thing he’s so old. He doesn’t care that much any more; what’s more important are his own troubles.
Around three o’clock Paul makes himself some tea, supposedly beneficial to your health. When he returns the empty cup to the kitchen he remembers, Sally had asked him to unload the dishwasher. When Sally has to be on her feet for any length of time her back starts to hurt. He does this chore and his own back starts hurting but it’s not too bad. When he’s done he goes out to the enclosed patio, sits and just looks out. He sees the house behind them but beyond that he can see trees and the sky, and he likes to look out from time to time. The sky is a cloudless blue. A lone bird hops into one of the trees, then flies off. Random thoughts come into his mind. He thinks of his cousin King, six months older. He has an old photo of King and himself when they were three years old in their swimsuits at the beach. That made King his oldest and best friend. He’d thought he and King would totter into old age together, but last year King had a stroke and then a fall and now he was gone. King would call him every now and then at the intermission of a play or some event he’d gone to and had gotten tired of. And he always called Paul on his birthday. Paul wishes he’d told King how much he loved him but that’s not something guys did. And now it was too late.
The song that was in his head that morning comes back to him. Maybe that was what the world did need now, love, sweet love. It was the new year. Maybe he should make a resolution. Be, what, more loving, at least more outgoing. Maybe he shouldn’t so grudgingly accept help from people, like those who’d offered help at Safeway. Maybe he shouldn’t get annoyed so easily, like at that bank teller, even that idiot who’d honked his horn at him. He should definitely try to be more loving to Sally. But saying that what the world needs was love was nice in the abstract. What was what Hemingway had said about abstract words in one of his stories; they were meaningless or something like that. Easy to say we needed more love but try it, especially with our politicians. Better to say what baseball and football coaches always said when they were asked about their teams, we’ll take one game at a time.
One day at a time. That too was easier said than done. In baseball or football, who knows what would happen, one key injury and that changes everything. In his life a gall bladder decides to die and he’s in the hospital for surgery. That was last year. Who knows what will happen this year. He’d once written a story about an old guy who had all kinds of aches and pains but who still had to take the garbage out. No matter what, you had to take the garbage out. You had to shop for groceries. You had to sweep off the leaves. You had to unload the dishwasher.
He takes a last look outside, then gets up and goes to his computer. He remembers and tells his Alexa to play the song “What the World Needs Now.” Then he types: “Observations on Reaching a Certain Age.”