When Noah turned sixty, he had acquired the three things he wanted most: an old house on Cape Cod, an adequate income, and a young wife.
Up until then he had spent his adult years unsettled by combat in World War I, weakened by a poisonous gas attack. Although the Army doctors decided he was sufficiently cured, he was never comfortable with himself. Long after, when everyone thought he should have recovered, he still dreamed of his best friend's severed arms and legs blown high above the trenches. And long after, when everyone had forgotten that war and gone onto the next one, he could still taste the yellow-green chlorine gas rolling low along the battlefield.
He had wandered from the United States to Europe to the Caribbean to Mexico living off his disability, while his family considered him a failure, his only fond memories the time before the war, especially the summers on the Cape Cod.
So when Ned, as everyone called him, settled into his house and his second marriage, he was like a man who had found his island. Out of the window across the pond he saw salt box houses, an old mill, and a tall church steeple, a scene that had hardly changed in a hundred years. He covered his walls with mementos: Mexican masks, model French sailing boats, and artillery shell casings. His wife furnished the rest with antiques. And after the first year, they altered very little.
He did let the hedge grow high, so it formed a barrier to the street; he framed one of his old posters from time to time. But nothing new was introduced, except for one thing. He commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of his wife like a soft focus Renoir. She stood, back to the canvas in a nineteenth century bonnet, holding a parasol, her head turned toward the viewer, encircled by flowers. He hung this over the mantle.
His wife from Virginia was twenty five years younger than he, and looked like a silent film actress. She had met Ned on the beach during her vacation. He was recounting one of his stories. Surrounded by bathers who had rushed from the water due to a shark scare, he was telling them about Mexico. Once, swimming far out in a bay in Acapulco, he had seen a dorsal fin a hundred yards away.
The next night they went out on a date; three months later they were married.
Their difference in years turned out to be an asset to both of them. Even in her sixties, when Ned's vision was fading, his eyes followed her around their living room. She pretended to object, but in fact did not tire of his adoration, feeling as though she never aged. And they both enjoyed their occasional love making.
She shared with him her passion, which was bourbon. Ned could never keep up with her, yet he began to look forward to the cocktail hour each day, as much as she did. Before dinner they poured a few and laughed gently with each other. In the late evening, after many more, they became embroiled in arguments: whether Massachusetts was better than Virginia, the Pilgrims superior to the Jamestown settlers. Often they went to bed furious.
And although Ned had always been absorbed in the issues of the day, the outside began to interest him less. The books he had once read filled shelves in his study and when he wanted to indicate his knowledge, he motioned to them. But he now read very little.
And he had always been old fashioned when it came to technology, keeping his 78 records long after everyone else had 33s, and never buying a stereo ("Its just a sales gimmick to get you to buy two speakers instead of one."). So he refused to own a television. When his children from his failed first marriage visited and told him of the landing on the moon, he was barely curious.
What intrigued him most was his growing conviction that the Indians and the pilgrims had eaten Thanksgiving dinner right there in his kitchen. He ridiculed the town historian who claimed his house was built centuries later.
Over the years neither he nor his children could distinguish one visit from the next. His conversation and stories were almost the same, and Ned found it hard to remember the details of their lives: their jobs, their moves, their education. Their step-mother gave the impression they were interrupting a routine. So they made the trip less often.
Ned was very happy. Although he tried to get his wife to drink less, she never would, and he learned to accept it. He knew from the war everything had its price.
Each twilight when the pond wasn't frozen, he looked out of his window and saw the ducks or swans in a V formation swimming to the old mill, as the tall white tower of the Christopher wren church struck the hour. So although each day was different from the next, and each month and season a progression, the years became blurred. In his early eighties he did things more out of habit, as he could not recall most evenings what he had done in the afternoon. But it really did not matter.
* * *
One morning in the summer when he was eighty-five, he awoke and looked at the clock and realized he'd over slept. He did not hear his wife in the room below, not her usual scuffling about. He lay back in bed, but an hour later still nothing. The town clock struck one, and he knew then it was very late, so he picked up his cane and went to her room.
She was lying there, still in bed. He started to scold her, but then she looked up at him and feebly raised an arm. Instinctively he reached down to pat her cheek. If she said anything, he couldn't hear it.
Although he was shaking, he slowly descended the steep narrow stairs, supporting himself with both banisters, cane hanging on his arm. He hobbled to the phone and dialed "O".
"There's something wrong with my wife," he told the operator.
"You'll get faster help if you call 911."
"What the hell kind of number is that? What's the rest of it?"
"It's the emergency number. But I'll dial it for you. What town are you in?"
The dispatcher came on the line moments later.
"My wife can't get out of bed."
"We'll be right over. Where are you?"
"On the pond. You know, up from the mill."
"The number. Do you have a house number?"
"It's the first house on the pond side of the road, up from the mill"
"I guess that will do."
Soon the ambulance arrived and strapped her to a stretcher, and then very carefully, almost vertically lowered her down the stairs through the hallway and out the front door.
"Will you be all right?" they asked Ned.
"Yes, I'm fine. Don't worry about me. Just take care of her," he said with the automatic words he learned at the front and in the army hospitals.
Then they left. The house was silent. He walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. The swans were nesting on the lawn in his yard. He leaned back and fell asleep.
When he woke he could not remember how he got there. He called his wife, but she did not answer. "She must have gone out and not told me," he thought. But when twilight came, she still had not returned.
Although he was in his bathrobe, he decided to go across the street to his neighbors. He had not been over there in several years, but they came to visit him every couple of months.
He walked slowly, bent over, up the hill. then rapped on the door with his cane. Patricia came to the door, "Noah, are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm just a bit confused. I must have misplaced my wife," he said, using army humor.
"Well, come in. Luke is out. I'll have him help you when he gets back." She guided him to the chair in her living room. "You know, you look hungry. Have you eaten?"
"I can't remember. But now that you mention it, I am a bit hungry. Please don't go to any trouble."
"No, trouble. Just sit here and let me see what I can find." She disappeared into her kitchen.
Although he was tired, he wanted to be a good guest, so he made himself stay alert. He looked at his house through her window, and realized that he hadn't seen it from up here in a long time. He heard a buzzing sound in his head. Where was his wife? Where had she gone? She must have told him something he forgot.
Then he felt a deep dull pain, a rumbling, like the sunny dawn the day of the gas attack. He saw the battlefield as though it were yesterday: the barbed wire, the gray mud riddled with boot prints, pieces of jackets, helmets, stumps of trees, bright light bouncing off shell-holes filled with water.
He had had the strangest feeling that morning that something was about to happen, the same way he felt now. Something in his life was changing and would never be the same again.
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