"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, March 18, 2024

Delaying The Last Supper - The Penance Of Inconsequential Dinner Guests

The Altons were a perfectly good, decent, and friendly couple.  The problem was that they were an unmitigated bore - and why his wife insisted on inviting them to dinner was a mystery to Howard who was in the process of cleaning the basement, emptying closets, and finally attacking the attic - getting rid of his old Santa Claus costume, hardened grout, unreturnable gifts, and boxes of saved memorabilia which, after so many years, had become so much trash. 

It was time, Howard insisted, to clear the decks for running, to make his life's last passage smooth sailing; and the Altons were included in his battening of hatches, furling of canvas, tightening of sheets, and running close to the wind.  

His wife wondered at the energy of a man who had never done anything around the house, a live-and-let-live husband with a call-the-plumber approach to leaks and drips, an otherwise good soul who had a hardwired indifference to broken things and an irritating workaround attitude, who now was working like a demon at all hours of the night until the bins and dumpsters in the alley were overflowing. 

If he wasn't sorting through accumulations, he was obsessively enforcing routine. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner had to be precisely and exactly the same.  There could be no variation in the porridge, the salad, or the meat-and-potatoes - the same steel-cut Quaker oats, the same spring mix from the same supermarket bin, and the very same, exact cut of flank steak from the butcher.  Bed time and rising were as regulated as on a marine base, and daily activities were ordered and performed with precision - all of which he said made the sailing easier, a kind of permanent trade wind at his back. 

Now, Howard was no end-is-nigh evangelical waiting for the Last Judgement.  He had grown up in an indifferently Catholic family who greeted Father Brophy warmly and cheerily on Easter Sunday but who otherwise gave St. Anthony's a pass.  He had gone to Sunday school, did the occasional Stations of the Cross, but left home and church behind at an early age.  


So, this newfound attention to his final days was surprising.  His wife had always assumed that he was no bell-ringer when it came to God, and that his death would be taken with the same disinterest as he had towards a leaky roof; but no.  

He kept talking about Tolstoy and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a story of a man who had badly misjudged everything, and who had no sooner resigned his post because of illness, than the crows began pecking at his leavings. 

Ivan had built a comfortable, unengaged life, designed to keep insignificance and irritation far from his door, but had neglected to consider the ultimate; and when he did face the yawning uncertainty of life after death, he became completely unmoored. 

'That will not happen to me', Howard said, and from the moment he woke up to the minute he closed his eyes, he channeled Ivan Ilyich.  'Too soon old, too late schmart', say the Jews, and he was bound and determined to figure out what was what before it was too late.  

Easier said than done when the extraneous bits kept seeping through chinks in the timbers.  He had nothing against the Altons or the Finches or even the Porters but demurred, deferred, and outright refused to consider anything to do with them.  More unnecessary cargo in the hold, rusty containers on deck, sacks and barrels that took up space. Which was why his wife became worried about him.  He might consider himself a latter-day Tolstoy, but he was hemming her in, a woman whose last decade was never meant to be a socially penurious time. 

Her husband was becoming a hermit - no, not a hermit but a misanthrope, a nasty old man who wanted no part of life, of others. No marital split could have been more renting - it was a question of valuation, of moral philosophy, of, well, everything. 

Yet there was Howard at three in the morning trucking the dolly out to the alley with waterlogged boxes, motheaten clothes, and ripped beach chairs.  He was making progress, and the emptying spaces were satisfying even if his mind was still cluttered with images of old Father Brophy shaking the chalice as if he were fixing martinis; and mumbling Domine, non sum dignus as he went down the altar rail; or the bloody crucified Christ on the cross hanging above the tabernacle, or the choir, or the nuns. 

Betty Alton clacked on about her great uncle Robert and his 100 acres in West Virginia, Lyme disease, and her latest recipe for blood sausage, and Howard at each sally fixed himself another martini until he was well boiled and numbed. '...so he sold them all', she rattled. 

'Sold what?' thought Howard having lost the gist of the story long ago.

The Bob Bridgers were a catty, scratchy pair that seemed unhappy about everything under the sun from garbage pickup to Americana, a nasty couple with some connection to Iowa State and the Midwest in general; and the Albert Coughs whose son was a doctor at Beth Israel and would soon be Chief of Staff blah blah and their daughter, a beauty, etc. etc. 

For Howard's wife there was a value in company, any company.  Community, she had often said, regardless of its cast and composition, was the stuff of life and breaking bread was its communion. 

And so it went until the last stalwart went by the wayside and the doorbell rang only when a sign-only delivery came. Silence is golden, and Howard's streamlining and trimming of sails could now go on uninterrupted.  Thank God the Altons, Bridgers, and Coughs had disappeared.  At Howard and his wife's age there would be no new crop of friends to eat their pot roast, so in a few years the attic and basement would be as empty as the day the foundation and roof beams were put in; and Howard would finally, happily at peace. 

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