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All in All.

So how do you feel today? I ask myself that. It's around seven in the morning. I look at the stove clock. I've done my run. Not a long one. Never a long one anymore. I count my paces in the run. Helps me get it over with. Three-hundred paces is enough going in one direction and same three-hundred back. I've made my coffee. My breakfast--bowl of sliced fresh fruit and another of yogurt and granola and--Oh, I've gone over all this before. What I eat. What I do. After breakfast, I read the newspaper for about twenty minutes with a third cup of coffee--mug, mug--and then go in back to my bedroom and sit at my worktable there--all these years, forty or so, and I still don't know whether to call it a worktable or desk. To me a desk is something with drawers in it. A worktable is just a table, which is what I work on: sort of a buffet table. I'll settle on "worktable." Anyway, read the newspaper and then sit at my worktable and write. But I've nothing to write. Finished a long short story yesterday. Got it copied an hour later but haven't sent it out yet. Well, it's only been a day, but the main reason is I have no place to. All the magazines I send my stories to already have a story of mine, either accepted or being considered. I'll have to wait till one rejects my latest submission unless I hear of a new magazine I'd want to send to. Today I'm concerned--though I know I shouldn't be. I always come up with something to write, though it sometimes takes a couple of days--I won't have anything to write again, and then what will I do? Silly of me. I know I'll find something to write, but I worry that I won't. But how do you feel today? I ask myself that lots of mornings. Out loud, usually, and partly to get my vocal cords going. And I feel good. Sun's out. Air feels fresh. I slept well. I had a good bowel movement right after I got out of bed, shaved without cutting myself, which I do about one time out of five. Little nicks; not much, though once in a while a lip. My legs feel normal, no sharp pain, especially the left. My back doesn't hurt--the lower back--which it usually does about half the waking day. Some days it's difficult even walking, the back is so bad and the pain in the left leg. But today? As I said, I feel good, good. Strong, agile, healthy. And I have an idea for a story. Just came, which makes me feel doubly good. Only thing better than having an idea for a story is to have a finished first draft of one. I ask Abby to sit down. This is the idea. I want to ask her some questions.

She says she is sitting down. "I'm in a wheelchair. What else could I be doing but sitting down? What questions do you want to ask?"

"Why did you leave me?"

"I didn't leave you. I died."

"But you didn't have to die when you did."

"I decided not to eat, drink, take any medications, and to go off the ventilator because life had become too hard for me. Had become impossible. That's all I have to say about it. Now leave me alone. Write something else. Get me out of your story, or just forget the story. You've written more than enough about me. Too much, in fact. Ever since we met. To be precise, it wasn't even a month after we met that you started writing about me and the first night we met, and that was early '79, and now it's almost mid-2014. You do the math."

"Let's see. Twenty-one, fourteen: thirty-five years. I wrote about other things in that time. Lots. Allegories, fantasies, realistic fictions. Stories and parts of novels about my mother, my father, my family--stuff you were barely in or not at all. My living in New York, DC, Paris, California, before I met you. Girlfriends who broke up with me, three of whom I got pregnant. Stories about me as a kid. Not many of those but a few. Ten, twenty, if that can be considered a few? Come on, be fair. What I've written since I met you hasn't always been about you. Far from it."

"OK, you did, but not as much as you're making out here. Face it, Philip: with me, you've drained the subject."

"You sure you mean 'drained'?"

"Whatever I mean--and what are you getting at? I got the word wrong?-you know what I'm saying. My life, sickness and death. My coming back to speak to you in several of them and, if you can get me into bed, to make love. The subject of me and you and me alone and me before you met me and me after I died and me as a child and high school student and being felt up by a freaking idiot in a crowded subway car. And me as your love object and muse and haunting your dreams and as a wife and mother and daughter and poet and translator and scholar and sick person and dying person and victim of two botched abortions and divorcee and me, me, me--it's been done, I have, by you, many number of times. A few hundred different pieces, when you consider individual short stories and chapters of novels. And one long novel--not one of your best, I have to say, and not to hurt you, but good nevertheless--devoted entirely to the night we first met. Though it was substantially fictionalized, I'll grant you that, more so than you did later on with subsequent works with me and us in them. So I'm in half your total literary output, I'd say--and by that I mean from when you first started writing seriously twenty-some years before I met you--which is an enormous amount. Maybe thousands of book pages in at least twenty books. You seem to have become more productive from the time we met, and you're now, since I died and the kids moved out of the house and you're living alone and have no one to take care of but yourself and the cat, more productive than you've ever been. But let something else come in. Someone else. Anyone but me."

"All right. Another idea just came. For a short story. See if it works for you, though that doesn't mean I won't write it, or at least try for a first draft, if you don't like the idea but I still do. I'm sitting on the toilet in our bathroom--meaning, the bathroom that's just off our bedroom--"

"You don't have to picture it for me. 1 lived in that house for fifteen years."

"Sixteen. Ninety-three, twenty-fourteen."

"And you know they aren't our bathroom and bedroom anymore. They're yours."

"I know. Don't remind me. But this is a story. I'm sitting there, on it, the toilet, waiting to defecate or hoping I will, when 1 hear you scream."

"So I'm back? I thought we had a deal. God, you're hopeless. And you sure you want the defecation or possibility of one in there? Fine. But I never liked hearing about it as a reader in any writer's work, no matter what fancy words they used for it."

"You want it out? Out it goes. I'm in the bathroom, shaving. I leap off the toilet, pull up my pants, don't need to wipe, since nothing came. I mean, I drop the razor into the sink, quickly wipe the shaving cream off my face with a towel and run out of the bedroom and see you in the kitchen on the floor. You fell out of your wheelchair."

"If you can't stop yourself from writing a story with me in it, and this one is more like fiction than most of the others, as I never once fell out of a wheelchair or even fell anytime once I got sick--can't you do it where I'm not in a wheelchair? You know how much I hated that chair. Stuck in it the last twenty years of my life."

"Was it that long?"

"It had to be almost that long. I died in oh-nine. Was diagnosed with the disease in '88 but showed signs of it three years earlier. And it took about ten years from the time I first showed symptoms before I could only get around in a wheelchair. Ten plus eighty-five is ninety-five. So OK. Fourteen, fifteen. But now I think I'm wrong. There are photographs of me in a wheelchair that go back to '91. One you especially liked and, I admit, I look pretty good and hardy in it, taken in the Sedgwick farmhouse we rented for I don't know how many summers but a lot."

"We lost the Veblen Cottage when it came up for sale in '85. Then a summer in that mosquito-infested cottage on Deer Isle, our worst summer with bugs. Two years in the Carter Cottage on Hillside Road, I think it is, in Brooklin, till the landlady doubled the rent. And summers in the Torry Farmouse in Sedgwick from '89 till it was remodeled and rented out as a year-round in oh-five. So seventeen years there. Then the last two summers on Cape Rosier, because the only summer we didn't go to Maine together since we met in late '78 was twenty-oh-eight. You got pneumonia again that previous winter, and I didn't want to risk it and the small hospital there and so on, while you did. My mistake. You held up just fine that summer in Baltimore, except for the heat, which wouldn't have been much of a problem in Maine."

"That's amazing. How do you remember all that?"

"I'm a writer. I remember things. You were pregnant with Miriam in '85, and in '86 I remember her crawling--she wasn't walking yet--into my arms from one end of the long carpeted hallway to the other of what I called the Mosquito Cottage. Every camp and cottage and vacation home in Maine has to have a name, it seems, and the Deer Isle had one but I gave it one of my own. As for the photos of you in a wheelchair in '91, maybe you sat in it only when you were tired, as you sometimes got, and couldn't get around well only using your walker, which I think you mostly used by then."

"Maybe. But I don't think so."

"The forest-green Swedish one with wheels on the front and back and a little flat crossbeam between the handles to sit on. We first saw someone with it at Dick's Diner. No, it was in Ellsworth, all right, but at a pool in a new health club we used to go to that was on the road to Acadia. We got the name of it and bought it at a medical equipment store right outside Ellsworth on the road--Route 1--to Schoodic Point and Machias."

"Now you're showing off. Anyway, ninety-one from twenty-oh-nine--I'm referring to how many years I was stuck in a wheelchair--is eighteen. Eighteen, twenty. Not much of a difference. Though what's the point of getting it so exactly except as a memory test? In that, you win, and always won. But what's your story with me on the floor, much as you know I don't want to be in it?"

"You're right. 1 said I'd stop writing about you, or think I did, and I will. I have to find a new subject or just a new woman. I think I got it. I'm back to sitting on the toilet in the same bathroom off my bedroom--or our bathroom, this new woman's and mine. And don't worry. It won't get messy or ugly with the toilet. My second wife screams. Somehow it'll come out that I had a first. Why we divorced or she's not with me anymore will also come out, though I don't as yet know how. It won't be you, though, I promise. So she screams, and I yell from the bathroom, 'What's wrong?' She yells, 'Help. Help me.' I leap off the toilet. No, I stand up and look at the toilet. Something had come. Not it for the moment but something."

"He stops to think this after his wife screams for help?"

"Thinks it quickly. Just as he wipes himself quickly, since he can't just run out of the bathroom without cleaning himself first. Then he pulls up his pants--he has to do that too or he'll trip, right?--boxer shorts and cargo pants shorts or whatever they're called--the shorts with a dozen pockets, half of them unnecessary--and then runs out of the room. His second wife--and I should keep this in the first person. It just feels better that way--that's my only explanation--and we'll call her Deborah. I don't think I ever had a Deborah or Debby in my fiction."

"You had to have. You've written so many stories. Maybe seven hundred by now, and you've had so many different women in them."

"You're probably right. But no harm done if I repeat. Two Deborahs, or one Deborah and one Debby in six-to seven-hundred short stories and fifteen novels, some of them quite long? That's not bad. And maybe the only other Deborah was a Debby. So she's on the kitchen floor. Deborah is. Or the dining room floor, since if I'm using my house as a prototype, then she wouldn't have heard me yell from the back bathroom, just as I wouldn't have heard her yell from the kitchen. Maybe a scream, I would. So we'll keep that open. Kitchen or dining room or why not the living room, which is closer to the back bathroom than the dining room? Should I describe her?"

"Why start describing someone now? You never describe any of your characters, or haven't since I've known you, except when you're playing around or making fun of or even ridiculing the description process."

"To do something different, then, or what I haven't done in years. She's lean and tall. Tall as I am now, since I've shrunk the last five years. Three inches from me are missing and possibly more to come. Maybe five-nine-my present height--which is tall for a woman, I think, or taller than most women her age are today. And dark-haired--she is--dark eyes, complexion a lot darker than yours--but no dark moods, or not many, except when she's frustrated that she can't, for instance, get out of bed or off the toilet on her own and wipe herself or sit comfortably in her wheelchair or even brush her teeth or hair or hold a fork or turn a page."

"I see where you got most of that from. And the mood reference isn't a physical description."

"Fair enough. But I've more of the others. Small breasts, long legs, solid butt, narrow waist, heart-shaped face, large shoulders."

"I can't picture it, the large shoulders."

"Like someone's who's been a distance swimmer all her adult life. Swims in the same Y I work out in. The pool there has a sling lift she sits in and which lowers her into the water and, then at the end of her swim, lifts her back to her wheelchair. She can control the lift. But if she can't that day-another frustration--the lifeguard or I do it for her. You remember. You used to use the same kind of lift at the Y in Ellsworth. The new Y here, with the lift, was built four years after you died, and you never swam in the old Y the new one replaced because it had no lift. While she's in the pool, I work out in the Y's fitness center. Then, when we're both done--always me first so I can be there to get her out of the pool--and I've dried her off except for her swimsuit, we often sit in the sauna there for twenty minutes and then go to one of the family rooms where I dress her--just one more frustration on her part at not being able to do it herself, especially the socks and shoes and bra. What I forgot to say is that she swims hard a mile or two just about every day."

"Now I can see where she gets her large shoulders. In Maine I swam at the most a quarter of a mile once or twice a week. It was too long a drive for us--forty-five minutes, and when we were on Cape Rosier, add a half-hour to that--to go more frequently. And I only took up swimming, as physical therapy, after I got sick, which explains why I didn't have anything like her build."

"And very white teeth. I'm still describing. Like yours and perfect bite. Trim figure. Not an ounce of fat. Great shape, despite her age and illness, which I haven't decided what it'll be yet, though it won't be what you had. Nice everything. I love the way she looks, just as I loved the way you looked. I love everything about her. I can say that to you, right?--because this is only a fiction. Love holding her, kissing her. How I missed, after my first wife died or she left me for someone else or we simply grew tired of each other or she did of me and we got amicably divorced, kissing a woman--I bet you thought I'd never get back to that part of the sentence--till I met her. And I'm thinking now that maybe she won't be sick until that very moment she screamed from the living or dining room and yelled for help. So no pool lift or my dressing or feeding her or anything like that, though she can still go to the pool every day. She likes to swim, I like to exercise, and neither of us likes to miss a day of it. Anyhow, that was a great night my first with her in bed, after not having sex with anyone for five years after my first wife died. A great afternoon, too, the first time we had coffee together a few days after we first met. And a few days after that a great lunch the next time we met. Am I confusing you with all these 'few days' and 'firsts'? Then a great dinner and the lovemaking and sleep, after, were all great, too, the third date we had and the first evening one and which was, yes, a few days after the lunch. And where did we first meet? You guessed it: at a party. I'd just about given up on them--cocktail, dinner, or otherwise. I never used to have a good time at them, even when my first wife was alive. But my friends--the Lowensteins--actually, the best friends of my first wife and me in Baltimore--insisted I go."

"Where'd you get the name Lowenstein?"

"Just came, like everything else. 1 had to call the Leibenthals something, and it seemed like a real name and with no symbolic or metaphorical significance that I could see. And like the Liebenthals, they sort of look after me, always inviting me to their home for dinner or to go to a movie or concert or play or sushi place with them."

"I'm glad. They're very nice ... the Leibenthals, I mean."

"So they invited me to a dinner party they were going to. That it was all right with the couple giving it. Said to me, 'You have to get out more. You're boring yourself to death and inflicting undeserved harm on yourself by staying home alone so much. We'll pick you up. That way, if you're not having a good time at the party, you can drink all you want at it, since you won't have to drive home in your own car.' So they picked me up, drove to the party and there was this woman there, Deborah. She was a lot older than the women--former grad and undergraduate students of mine--I've had nothing more than lunch with a few times since my first wife died. Around fifty-two--her age. So, twenty-five ... no, that would be from today. Twenty-two years younger than me, but that didn't seem to bother her. I was still in good shape. Onset of Parkinson's, but the earliest stages of it, not where it showed ... nothing hobbling or incapacitating. Balding ... maybe more than that. Maybe by that time I should say I was bald, even though I had plenty of hair on the sides of my head and thick, not thin, and a sprinkling on top, though half the men by the time they're seventy are balding or bald. Jewish-American men, anyway. And a slight paunch--nothing that visible and which losing five pounds overall wouldn't flatten out--and with few lines on my face and no sign yet of a turkey wattle neck. Not looking our age seems to run in my family. We were introduced. The two singles at the party. And I think intentionally seated next to each other at the dinner table. As I said, I found her quite attractive. If I didn't say it, I'm saying it now. Face, clothes, figure, voice, smile, legs, intellect, no makeup that I could see; no lipstick or nail polish. Ponytail held in place by a simple elastic hairband; everything. Table manners. The way she enjoyed her food and that she asked for seconds. Have I gone on too long? Even how she blotted her lips with her cloth napkin. I thought, good thing she isn't wearing lipstick. She later told me, after we'd been seeing each other for a while, that she didn't find me attractive that night, but she liked talking to me. She doesn't really meet many artistically creative people in her life, she said, even though she's a literature professor specializing in American fiction from 1950 on--and she's sorry but she's never read anything of mine or heard of me--and has a secret life as a poet. Never sends her poems out. Just likes writing them. So when I suggested we meet for coffee one day when she has some free time--'That's about all I have, I said without feeling sorry for myself'--she said OK. We exchanged phone numbers in case something came up where one of us couldn't make it for the afternoon we'd settled on. Sure enough, she called to say she has to cancel our coffee date, something came up. Her husband--I knew they had split up and were living near each other and sharing the two kids--has changed his mind about going ahead with the divorce. 'I'll try to phone you when things settle down a little,' she said. 'May I send you a couple of my books in the meantime?' I said, and she said, 'Not now. No time to read anything but work for school and divorce documents. Save it and just one, please, for when we next meet.' I didn't think she'd ever call. But a month later, she did. No, that's not how it happened. I bumped into her at the Whole Foods store in Mount Washington. 'Hi. What a nice surprise, bumping into you.' She said 'Same with me. And before you say anything about it, I'm sorry I haven't called.' Still dealing with a hysterical ex, as she wished she could legitimately call him, who is even more adamant than ever about staying hitched. 'Who could blame him?' I said. 'What's that supposed to mean?' She didn't like the remark, it seemed. 'If I can try to make a comeback,' I said, 'you're attractive and very smart and accomplished and have a good spirit, great sense of humor, no doubt made your home a happy, interesting, and lively place with your exuberance and intelligence and so on. Nothing bad. Everything good. I swear. And I'm sure it's been awful for you and your kids, as well as your husband. Look,' I said, 'let's sit down, after we're through shopping, at one of the tables by the exit here, and continue our talk there.' 'All right,' she said, 'but only if we don't bring up the subject of divorce. I'm sick of it.' So we finished shopping, sat down, our shopping carts near us with bags of groceries in them, and had coffee and talked about a wide range of things, but never 'divorce.' We made a date to meet later that week for lunch. A few days or a week after that--whenever it was--dinner out. After dinner, she invited me to her house. We'd come in separate cars, so I followed her home in mine. Her two boys were with their father for the weekend. We made love. Had some brandy first--German; I never heard of German brandy, and it was good--and then made love. I was uneasy about it. First time, it'd be, I made love with anyone or even felt a woman's body since the last time with you."

"I don't remember. Was I awake?"

"Sure. In your hospital bed at home. We'd done it there a few times in the year or so you had that bed. Usually, though, we'd do it in our regular bed, and then I'd get you in the hospital bed or, if it was still day, dressed and in your wheelchair. The last time we made love was in the hospital bed a month, I'd say, before you died."

"I still don't remember."

"It couldn't have been too pleasant for you, doing it in that cramped space and your not feeling that well, and you were probably just accommodating me. You did that a lot, mostly before you got very sick. I was always grateful. I remember your saying a number of times--maybe ten in our thirty years together--'Nothing happening? An off day?' Or 'Things just not working?' This is when we did it in whatever regular bed we were in at home or in Maine, and you could still get around on your own fairly easily--undress and get out of your wheelchair and onto the bed. Turn over by yourself and get on top or switch positions and so on. Anyway: 'Let me see what I can do to help,' you used to say."

"And it worked?"

"What you did was infallible. Maybe because you didn't have to do it that often, and it took just a minute or two, and then I was ready to go again. Though I'm sure I wanted you to do it longer, maybe to the end, but that would have been cheating you, and I knew it really wasn't something you liked doing. For me, it was wonderful, of course. What was most wonderful was when you didn't have to accommodate me but enjoyed the whole thing yourself and even initiated it. You'd come to the room I was working in. It was usually our bedroom, in Maine or our string of homes in Baltimore. The kids would be in school or at camp or the baby would be sleeping. No, when we lived in our house on Sulgrave I worked in the basement, but we had a guest bed down there. Anyway, you'd say something like 'Think you can spare half an hour?' Or 'What do you say to us both taking a short break?' Always something like that. And I always said yes. I don't think I ever said no."

"I remember. Though I didn't know I was so successful at it. But what about your story?"

"Deborah is on the living room floor. Fell there. The kids are in school. She's now divorced. What am I talking about? We're married. She's my second wife. She's screaming, but I can't understand a word. I run to her and try to lift her back to the wheelchair, but she keeps shaking her head. She can't speak and she points to the phone. '911?' I say. She nods. I dial it and EMS comes. The ambulance truck. She's had a stroke and they take her to Emergency."

"Oh. Emergency again. A familiar place in your fiction."

"I know. But unavoidable. Someone has a stroke, that's where she goes. She has a second and maybe even a third stroke in the intensive care unit the same day or the next one or one on each day and she dies. I go into deep mourning. Refuse to see any people but our kids--yours and mine--and the Lowensteins and maybe Deborah's boys."

"How are they? The Liebenthals and our daughters, of course."

"You're not in touch with them?"

"Just tell me."

"Our daughters are fine. Doing well. Wonderful as always. So smart and sensible and kind. Not married but both in good relationships and getting advanced degrees. The Lowensteins, meaning the Leibenthals, are good too. So I'm in deep mourning. I don't go anywhere. Refuse to see a doctor or a therapist. Don't eat. Drink too much. Have given up reading. I die."

"Oh, I'm so sorry. Doesn't seem like much of an ending. For a story, I mean."

"I know. So I'll change it. Let me think. I'm thinking. I pick Deborah up off the floor. Carry her to the bedroom, set her down on the bed. Hold her hand. I ask her if she wants me to call 911. She can speak and she says no. She'll be all right. She just wants to rest. The phone rings. The one in the bedroom. I say I won't answer it. I'll just sit beside her. 'Whoever it is,' I say, 'will call back or we'll hear the message being spoken into the answering machine.' I still have the answering machine my first wife bought and set up on the dresser in our bedroom. She says 'It might be one of the kids, yours or mine. Answer it.' I get up and pick up the receiver just as the answering machine comes on. I say 'Hold it. Wait till it's finished.' When it's finished I say 'Hello?' It's an editor at a major magazine. Harper's, we'll say. They're taking the two short stories I sent them. I sent two to give them a choice, but they want both. I say 'That's great news; thanks. You can't imagine how happy you've made me.' The editor says 'Will you take a payment of nine thousand for the two of them?' and I say 'Are you kidding? I shouldn't be saying this, but I'd take far less to be published in your magazine, but nine thousand is very welcome.' 'The contract will be in the mail,' she says. I hang up the phone and look at Deborah. Her eyes are closed. I say 'Great news, my sweetheart. But first, do you want to sleep?' Her eyes stay closed; she doesn't answer. I say 'Deborah, can you hear me?' She doesn't move. She's had what the doctors later tell me are two strokes in around twenty minutes, the second one much more serious than the first. I call 911. It's, of course, too late. My dear second wife is dead."

"That makes me sad. But it still isn't much of a story. Do you have an ending for it?"

"The ending is my guilt that I didn't call 911 right away. That I never should have moved her to the bed. The doctors said that most likely brought on the second stroke. That I should have made her comfortable on the floor till EMS came. Not that they could have done anything or even got there before she died. But you never know."

"That still doesn't end it or not quite. You can't think of something better? More conclusive or ironic or something?"

"I can't. Not now. I will, though. Or I'll write something else. How do you feel?"

"Me? I feel fine, thank you. I like Deborah, though. She sounded nice."

"It's just part of a story. But she was very nice. I was so happy with her. As happy as I was with my first wife. Do you mind my saying that?"

"No, I'm glad. I want you to be happy, in and out of your stories, and with someone you like. I'm only sorry when you're sad."

"We did lots of terrific things together, Deborah and I, in the short time we were with each other. Went to Paris. Spent two whole summers--June through August--in a beautiful cottage in Maine. The real thing. Built in '22. Right on the water. Step out the back door and you're practically in it. The place even came with a rowboat. That was fun, rowing in the boat with her and exploring little islands. Her kids were with us for a month and a half both summers, and my two--the ones from my first wife--visited us with their boyfriends for a couple of weeks. The cottage was small, but we made do. But she died, and I went into deep, deep mourning again. Told you. I'm trying to finish the story by talking about it to you. So the story continues. I meet someone new a while later. Didn't think it could happen again, and I told myself I didn't want to. Suppose she also died on me? I thought. She was twenty years younger than me. In great shape. I like a woman who exercises a lot and maintains a trim figure. But one with a little extra flesh on her too, in places I can grab and even be a bit rough with, but you know what I mean. Nothing that hurts. Strictly for the pleasure of us both. And she could even be thirty years younger than me. A redhead. Very white skin. Never went out in the sun. Even with sun protectors--that cream; sunscreen--she'd burn. OK. So this woman. I'm going to change tenses, see which one works better. If both are just as good, I'll make a choice. Met her at a brunch the Lowensteins gave. She was a friend of theirs. Lived in the Bay Area of California. An artist. Painter. Drawer. Collager or collagist. Maybe it's called something else. She was in town for a week, staying with the Lowensteins. Her husband had died of a rare disease about twenty years before. They had one child, who was married and had children. So she was a grandmother but a young one. Had her child at twenty-two. Now was forty-seven. We hit it off at the brunch. Met the next day for lunch and the day after that for a movie. Then the Lowensteins invited me for dinner at their home. Just the four of us. She stayed with me the last three days of her visit. Again, I was uneasy about making love with someone new, especially now. I was getting old. I was old. But it worked out. No, thirty years is too great a difference in our ages. Twenty is plenty and a lot more believable. She was very bright, gentle, talented, the rest of it. We'd be with each other for a week or two every other month. I'd fly out, she'd fly in. We'd meet up at the airports. I was on a roll too. Selling a novel and story collection. I'd just about given up on placing my work, but she became my cheerleader, she said, encouraging me to send the stuff out more. A major publisher took the two books. And there were major awards, major honors, lots of good reviews of the two books in major places, stories in major magazines and anthologies. Major, major, major. I was living off my writing for once, not just my salary and then my teacher's pension and Social Security. Took fifty years of writing, but so what? I never expected to, except at the beginning. Then she said she wanted us to live together. Too much traveling. It was getting exhausting. And the first time she wanted to live with anyone but her son since her husband died. So I tried it in California for three months. Then she lived with me in Baltimore for six months. Turned out we were good for long stretches. We got married and stayed in Baltimore. Did I tell you that Deborah and I had got married? I must have. But I wanted to with this last woman, Lois. She said just being partners was enough for her. We both felt sure we'd never break up. But marriage means a lot to me. I like wearing a wedding band, filing joint income taxes, referring to the woman as my wife, so she did it for my sake. Then she got sick. This was about a half year into the marriage. Something that started in the liver and spread. She was operated on three times but kept getting worse. Finally, what she had was no longer operable. I took care of her at home for four months before she died there. I went into deep mourning again. Seems the story of my life. It took me a year to recover. I was introduced to several eligible women after that but didn't want to start something with anyone. Three losses--three great losses in less than ten years, though losing my first wife was the worst, probably because we were together for thirty years. Thirty? Yes, thirty, almost to the day, if you consider the first day we met the start of our being together--and I probably loved her the most, too. Though I also loved Deborah and Lois very much. But what was I saying? I can get carried away sometimes."

"The ending."

"The ending. And I think 1 was going to say that three great losses in so short a time was probably the main reason I didn't begin anything again with another woman. It had become too much. I couldn't go through it again. But the ending. I was old by then, when Lois died--in my low eighties--and just sort of gave up on life and died."

"What of?"

"I don't know. Does it matter? I got old and sick. I got hit by a bicycle. I slipped on ice one day or in the shower. I'd been told to get a shower chair-my daughters even bought me one--but I liked showering the normal way, standing up. I broke a hip. At that age, one almost never recovers from a broken hip. It's what started my mother's rapid decline when she was approaching ninety. I couldn't really exercise anymore. Physical therapy didn't help, and it was a bore. I started to drink too much. I always drank but hadn't drank like that--so much; overdrank, and the hard stuff and without mixers--since I was in my twenties. So I got sick and then very sick. I also wasn't eating and refused to go into a hospital. I didn't last long. I died. My daughters--our daughters--and Lois's and Deborah's children were in the house--the house you and I--my first wife and I--moved into in '93--when I died. Last words I heard were one of the kids--well, now they were all adults, and maybe it was even Lois's grandchild--yelling 'Everyone. Come quick.' Was it a happy life? All in all, I'm saying. A good life? Even a satisfying life? For sure. I had been the husband of three terrific women. And the father, and I guess you can also call me stepfather, of several wonderful children. Also the three or four women I was close with in a romantic way, and one I was even engaged to, before I met my first wife relatively late in my life. But you were the best of all the women, without question. My first wife was. We had so much fun. The good times. The great lovemaking. The humor. The kids. The conversations. Holding hands. Kisses. My arms around her shoulders. Hers around my waist. It's been a damn good life, I thought, just after I heard one of the kids or the grandchild yelling 'Everyone. Come quick.' Then I died. That's an ending. All in all--sicknesses aside--a good life. So what do you think? I'd like your opinion. Abby, you still there?" Darn, lost her again. And just when I really wanted an answer. Well, I did before too, with all my questions, but especially now. She probably wouldn't approve of that ending. She was an expert on endings, Chekhov's and Leskov's particularly. Their short stories. The authority, almost. At least one of but definitely the scholar who wrote the clearest prose about them. I think she would have said "The ending you now have for your story isn't enough." She might have softened her criticism a little by saying instead "isn't sufficient." That's how she was. In the personal stuff. If she was writing a criticism for an academic journal, let's say, she wouldn't hold back like that. And then to him something like: "My advice, for what it's worth, is for you to think of another ending for the story or to go on from the one you have. Extending it. Making it stronger, more concluding. What am I trying to say?" she often said. "More final. Absolutely final, in fact. That's what you want. You know what Babel said about ending a sentence. It could just as easily apply to the ending of a short story. I can't just now remember exactly what he said, but 'Have it stop,' for want of a better expression, 'on a dime.'" I'll ask her. About the ending, next time she appears in my head. But by that time I'll probably have forgotten to, and we'll talk about other things. So this first draft of a story I just wrote. What to do with it in the meantime? Read it over tomorrow, or maybe even later tonight, and see if it's worth working on.
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Author:Dixon, Stephen
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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