An old man mourns his wife
|The space in the outhouse was sparse enough to make it cramped, but in the stillness and cathedral-like quiet of the morning it was adequate; a fragile infinity. Seagulls floated in over the gently swaying boats in the harbour buffeted by invisible clouds of water vapour pried from the surface by the midsummer rays. He tried the switch on the radio again, a pointless thing to do he knew because it had been broken since yesterday, but the act satisfied him all the same. He was right -- still broken. A faulty connection no doubt. He might be able to fix it; he had the tools and he had the know. He had everything he needed in that outhouse. The most important things were in perfect order on a shelf behind him: his toolbox, a camping stove, a 12V cooler, a few of his favourite fishing lures, some books and instruction manuals, a photograph of his wife and two children. Etcetera etcetera. Other than that there was a chair to sit on, a table to lean his elbows on, an old clock on the wall to pound out the minutes and crammed in behind the table against the wall, a bunk to sleep off the drowsiness. And currently, a broken radio to occupy him.
He turned the black plastic contraption over in his hands wondering how to get in. It was never self evident he muttered. The batteries were new, but he pulled one out, wetted his finger and tested it against his tongue. The tingle was distinct and he poked it back in. There were no screws but along the seam on one side there was a little indented section, a few millimeters long. He picked up the knife lying on the plate of finished herring and potatoes in front of him and - ignoring the slight tremor in his still relatively strong hands - applied pressure with the tip. He heard a sharp crack of breaking plastic as the radios two sides came apart like two halves of a mussel. The blackness that revealed itself in the fissure made his heart race slightly, but he took out his reading glasses from his shirt pocket, pulled himself up straight, and parted the shells, carefully, so as not to displace any of its innards. He eyed the scattered rows of mystical transistors and resistors, reading them as if they were words and phrases he actually understood. A phantom whisper came to him from somewhere far away, a short, condescending, (but light-hearted) chuckle from his wife as she dried dishes with a towel before putting them away in their kitchen in their, now empty, house down the road.
His attention left the radio and he looked out at the concrete wall running along the pier, something he often did when he thought of R--, the significance of which was lost to him. She had died three years ago, and each year he would put on his suit and walk up to the church at the top of the hill. He didn't go in, but sometimes the priest would come out to him and share a few words as he stood in the cemetery. He knew that he missed her deeply, but for some reason he couldn't muster up the sadness, and this irked him. He tried to envision her lying there eternally sleeping beneath his feet but all he saw was the grass and the granite headstone. She wasn't there. And when he really tried to feel something all he could sense was a hint of bitter resentment for being left alone, yet again, and this time forever.
He cleared his throat and reminded himself what he was looking for: a faulty connection. The batteries were full of electrons, but for some reason they weren't flowing, and the most plausible reason was a break in the circuit, he thought. A transistor radio was after all, despite the complexity of numbers and components, a relatively simple system. Determined and designed with no unnecessary parts, everything in it's right place. The human mind on the other hand ... Aha! The spanner in the works. He took out his soldering iron and rummaged in the bottom of the toolbox for a piece of soldering wire. Propping the back of the radio against his glass and steadying his hand against the table he jabbed clumsily at the piece of wire until it sputtered and smoke rose to sting his eye. As soon as the metal had cooled the radio came to life and a crackling symphony poured into the room. Folding the radio back together he sealed it with a piece of duct tape.
After a while he heard muffled voices outside and suddenly the door to the outhouse opened. A spectacled man with an ice-creamed little girl peered into the dusty gloom. “There is an old man in here!” the little girl said. “Yes, with an old broken radio” the father replied. The father nodded a good day to Matts who stared stunned back until the door was closed again. He looked down at the radio and frowned at it. He had answered his own question he knew, but it dawned on him that just because there were soothing streams of jazz piano emanating from it, didn’t mean he had necessarily fixed it. He reached into the cooler and poured himself a glass of beer. Half way through he made up his mind to get to the bottom of things.
He opened up an old newspaper on the table in front of him, turned the switch off, removed the batteries and pulled off the piece of tape. Methodically he unpacked the insides arranging the components on the newspaper in the order that they came out. “The important thing to remember,” he told himself, “is to never leave a question unanswered, and in turn, to never leave an answer unquestioned”. The old clock on the wall chimed, once, and went on ticking.
The sun never really sets over the Baltic in June, but like the coming and going of the Great Ice, winter comes eventually and then the sun never really rises; and who can really tell what happened to the crumbs of our ancestors? It is as if they couldn’t get far enough away. Eventually he was asking himself in what order the parts fit together and when he finally reached into the cooler to find it empty he gave up.
He looked out the window, passed the pier and the concrete wall and across the open water to the sky: violent pink and crossed with the sinews of a receding front, like a backlit piece of flesh stretched between Heaven and Earth, and Venus shining bright like a pinhole blemish where the fire shone through. He thought of his children and wondered why they never called him. They took after their mother, that was for sure. He stood up to go, and as he steadied himself pulling his legs out from between the table and the chair, he knocked a box of screws from the shelf. For a moment they flashed in the light from the window before hitting the floor, slung from their ordered perch to scatter and roll until they stopped, motionless, no two screws touching each other. The cardboard box crushed under his boot as he stepped out of the outhouse. “Was that it?” he thought as he relieved himself looking across the tall grass to the black road. “Are we doomed?” Would He be there to pull things together again at the end, or would He be lying among us and the rubble, His parts too far apart to muster up the eddies needed to thwart the flow of the Great River? The air was cool and warm all at once and drowned by the sound of crickets. He decided against driving back to the house and instead pushed his way through to the bunk at the back of the outhouse and fell straight to sleep.
He slept. And towards the morning, he dreamt. There was a chessboard, and there was R--. And despite her total disinterest in the rules, she had been willing, and she had won and was now sitting looking out at the horizon. “I am here now aren't I?” He was trying to figure out his last few moves, but realized cones and broken bits of concrete were not legitimate chess pieces. “Yes, but this is a dream.” he argued. She laughed and then sat quietly for a moment. “If it's working, why fix it?” He woke, then rose.
He took a brush and pan off the shelf and swept up the screws. He still had the sweet sound of her laughter in his ears and he felt happier than for a long time. He straightened the box and put the screws back in and put the box on the shelf. Then he held the newspaper with the broken radio in his hand for a moment and turned to the last unmentioned piece of furniture in the cramped space. A second table, piled with broken rubbish; cracked mugs, spent spark plugs, stuck reels. Etcetera etcetera. And tucked behind one of the legs, a bottle with a schnapps glass draped over the cap; the only two working things in that corner. “In the category of things we don't talk about” his son had once said with a laugh pointing at the table before they embraced and he left for America. The comment hurt him then. They had spoken, or at least, his son had spoken sitting on the edge of the bed; explaining, or rather, accusing. And he couldn’t understand, yet at the same time, he could. Now, he chuckled and let the pieces of radio slide off the paper and onto the heap.
At the door he turned right, rather than left towards his car, and let his feet walk him down to the water. He stood leaning against the concrete wall and listened to, and watched the waves washing in among the rounded stones, like fingers raking folds of silk. He thought of his dream and her laughter and he felt a mellow sadness rising. Then something incredible happened. He heard her speak, clear as the motor sounds from the road, but closer. “Trust me” she said, in her deep voice, old and eternally young, and he knew then without looking that she was there sitting on the concrete wall just over his right shoulder, her knees pulled up to her chest and held in long arms, dressed in grey slacks and grey woollen sweater, her skin lush and vibrant against her grey hair and the grey water mirrored in her eyes. His old shoulders shook and his once strong frame heaved as the tears rolled down his cheeks.