"When your parents are still living, they stand between you and death. When they die, you're next in line." In this brilliant and elegant story, which won the National Magazine Award in 2012, Nathaniel Rich ridicules the dream of eternal life and human beings' desire to go on living when faced with the terror of death in a tone that is humoristic, macabre but not at all insensitive. Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich teaches us that the death of another arouses nothing in us but the consciousness of our own life carrying on, but what happens if the years pass and the other goes on living? This change in the order of things, which is at the heart of The Northeast Kingdom, creates original and hilarious human situations that are a testament to the author's sharp eye and heart.
He had always believed that his immortality would take the form of the Aerojet. The two-stage, solid-fuel boost rocket had been, in its time, one of the crowning achievements of human technology — the first apparatus to collect data on the higher atmosphere. There were other worthy accomplishments — his long tenure as chairman of Aerobee International, for instance — but the Aerojet should have been sufficient to rate him an obituary in the national papers. The thought consoled him, though he had once hoped for more. He remembered, as a boy, dreaming about alien encounters, the exploration of new worlds, Martian colonies secured under prodigious glass domes, silent spaceships diving through orange canyons. Unfortunately he’d been born far too early for any of that. So as he slipped through the early decades of his retirement, swallowing his yogurt every morning and assembling his model airplanes in the afternoon, he cheered himself with the thought of the inevitable column of newsprint that would one day be dedicated to his memory. Beneath the headline (SAUL WYNGARTEN, ENGINEER AND SPACE-AGE SEER) would appear his portrait and, next to it, a file photograph of the Aerojet, that thin column of propulsive energy, his gift to humanity.
Saul first began to wonder whether he might not be remembered for the Aerojet at his centennial party, when the body of his nephew, Joseph, was found in the bathroom. Joseph’s death was not in itself surprising; at seventy-four years of age he was disturbingly unfit, reddish, and fat, with an advanced case of gout that required him to wear an oversized plastic boot on his left foot. No, it was what happened directly after the body was discovered that forced Saul to question the most basic assumptions he’d made about his fate.
Until then it had been a festive evening, and not just because loud, drunk Joseph was nowhere to be found. On the back lawn of Saul’s Vermont home, seated around him at seven rented round tables, were his son and daughter, their children, thirteen great-grandchildren, and even little Saul Schapiro, his two-year-old great-great-grandchild. The sight of all his descendants gave Saul a ghostly sensation, as though he were looking back from the grave. There were toasts and polite laughter, and finally Saul himself stomped onto the stage. He braced himself against the sides of the podium, hard, and the tenacity of his grip prompted one of his grandsons to rush to his side for support. But Saul wasn’t unsteady. He was overwhelmed.
He was remembering his own great-grandmother’s centennial. Although he had been only eight at the time — less than a month before he left Vienna forever — the memory felt more real to him than the patient, upturned faces of the people who sat on his lawn in plastic folding chairs. He saw the cobwebs dangling from the sill of the high lacquered window in Gommie’s drawing room; the long candles set at irregular intervals along the banquet table, dripping into pinkish pools of wax; and, most vividly of all, Gommie herself, her smiling, crenellated face perched like a stuffed animal above her evaporated body. Deaf and immobile, she had been far less fit at one hundred than Saul was today. But on that distant night ninety-two years earlier, as her quavering hand delivered half-thimbles of Slivovitz to her small, crooked mouth, he could tell that she had been happy.
At the podium Saul recalled Gommie’s party, laughing at the memories. But as he stepped off the stage to benevolent applause, an unsettling thought occurred to him: Everyone at Gommie’s house that day — Gommie herself, Saul’s aunts and uncles and even his little cousins, his parents, his poor sister — they were all dead. Who, then, are all these clapping people? These people who claim to be my family? Then a shriek came from inside the house and Joseph’s wife and daughter burst into sobs.
Saul was as disturbed as anyone to learn of the death of his favorite nephew. It was a gruesome display, the mountainous body twisted on the carpet. But what bothered him most deeply — what stayed with him in the days, years, and decades that followed — was the look that his guests gave him once the ambulance had removed the corpse. “Are you all right, Grandfather?” asked one young woman whom he could not identify. Saul began to respond but was chastened by something cold and suspicious that flashed in her eyes. Old Art and Bethany Mossberger gave him the same look, as did his niece Janet and Janet’s husband. He sensed something uneasy, also, in his own children’s manner with him: the two of them refused to make eye contact, and Elon even dodged Saul’s embrace. As if Saul were somehow responsible for Joseph’s coronary!
When your parents are still living, they stand between you and death. When they die, you’re next in line. These people in their white jackets and summer dresses were staring at Saul like he’d made a devil’s bargain; like he had skipped his turn, and those behind him would now have to go in his place. Saul had violated some unwritten law. He had been gluttonous with life, he’d eaten too much. Where had his extra portion come from? It was as if they believed he was eating the life out of their bodies.
In the following years — 101, 102, 103, 104, 105 — both of Saul’s children died and his grandchildren scattered. There were fewer phone calls. His most frequent visitors were a pair of representatives from the Gerontology Research Group, two women in their fifties — or sixties, maybe even early seventies, it was difficult for Saul to distinguish anymore. One woman was silent, an obsessive note-taker, with the large clinking bracelets of a Hapsburg madam. The other wore oversized glasses and was unusually tall — a poor indication of longevity, Saul had always believed, the excessive distance between heart and brain causing a dissipation of the vital energies. Saul was only sixty-five inches himself.
They visited his home in Hastings every six months, with their clipboards and questionnaires and hushed voices. They brought him a refrigerator magnet on which was printed, in childish writing, I’M A CENTENARIAN AND I FEEL ONEHUNDREDPERCENTENARIAN! Their attitude with him was more skeptical than curious. They observed closely his steady, strong hands, his clear, brownish skin, his erect posture, the nimble activity of his restless feet. The tall one asked the questions, while the small one stood ready with a pen.
To what do you attribute your longevity? What is your diet? How would you rate your average level of stress, on a scale of one to ten? What do you want from life?
“I want to see man explore new planets,” said Saul.
The mousy woman wrote on her pad, nodding furiously.
“And what advice do you have for people who want to live long lives?”
“I don’t know,” Saul said. “Keep breathing, I guess.”
They gave him patient smiles and waited for him to continue. But he had nothing to add. The silence quickly became uncomfortable.
“Did you ever read about the Aerojet?” he said finally. “It was the first apparatus to collect data on the higher atmosphere.”
The women thanked him for his time.
When Saul’s grandchildren did visit, their own children often found it difficult to understand who he was. They stared at him as they would a statue, and quickly grew bored. After a while they would wander off, playing with his model airplanes until their anxious parents screamed, Put those down, they aren’t toys.
“But they are,” Saul would say, encouraging the children. “They are my toys.”
One person did stay behind: Jacob Wyngarten, Elon’s oldest son. Jacob moved into his father’s childhood bedroom. The state had refused to renew Saul’s driver’s license after his one-hundredth birthday, so he’d required an assistant to buy groceries and take care of the house until he could find professional help. Jacob had volunteered to work for a month, but the circumstances suited both men, so he stayed.
A quiet child, Jacob had expanded into a plump, gentle adult with a dry sense of humor and a slight nervous flutter around the corners of his thin mouth. He’d never married, and was now in his mid-fifties. He had mentioned in passing, once or twice, a certain friend — Saul suspected this friend was a man, but he did not pry.
Jacob had visited Saul and Esther for a weekend at the old house on Orchard Drive, once, when he was still in grade school; he had spent most of the day exploring the woods. When Esther went out to water the herb garden, she overheard him talking to himself. That evening, Saul remembered, she had expressed doubts about the boy’s masculinity. “He just seems a tad ethereal,” she had said to Saul. “He’s in outer space.” Saul defended his grandson, pointing out that, as a rocket engineer, he, too, spent most of his days in outer space. “You know what I mean,” Esther had said. And Saul, though he didn’t admit it to his wife, had agreed. The boy was a tad ethereal. Jacob had traded currency at a Manhattan bank with such success that he had retired ten years earlier. He continued to trade for himself, but it was only for sport; he had all the money he could ever spend. He behaved genially around Saul, but in company he grew restless. When his sisters and cousins visited, Jacob made excuses to leave the house.
“I don’t like the way they treat you,” Jacob told him.
“Have you noticed that they only come to see us when they’re sick? Cousin Fred was here a week after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Joseph’s daughter showed up after she found out she had inherited his gout. Annabelle only brought her son after he was in the hospital with mono.”
“Everyone has health problems.”
“Eventually everyone. Or so I imagine.”
“They just want to reassure themselves that they have your genes.”
“So? I appreciate the company.”
“They don’t talk to you. Not really. They don’t want to know about your accomplishments, your thoughts on life. They only want to know how closely they’re related to you. Cousin Alan’s kid wanted to know your blood type, for heaven’s sake. Your blood type! You’re a science experiment to them. It’s repulsive.”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Saul, but his voice was quiet, almost inaudible, and his grandson didn’t press it any further.
Jacob was happiest when they were alone together. He cleaned the house, bought groceries and cooked, ordered new model airplanes — dozens, more than Saul imagined he’d ever need. The collection had grown enormous, unwieldy, the vessels arrayed across two ping-pong tables in the garage. Jacob had to park his car in the driveway, but he didn’t complain. He even made a point of dusting the completed models once a week.
Only the Aerojet was granted a privileged perch. It sat on Saul’s bureau, right beside the alarm clock. It was the first thing he saw when he woke up. On unclouded nights the moonlight reflected off its hull and the glow served as a kind of nightlight.
Though he never would have mentioned such a thing to Jacob, this light was important to him. As a young man, so many years ago, he had been told that when you grow old, you stop fearing death. You grow indifferent to it. The big things cease to bother you, while the small irritations become disproportionately vast. And when you reached an extreme age, when you passed a century as Gommie had, this irksomeness turns into disappointment and despair. Finally, you welcome death. Jacob had shown him a newspaper article about the world’s oldest person, a little Japanese woman (Saul was mentioned in passing in the final paragraph, near the bottom of the list of oldest living Americans). She was quoted as saying, “I don’t need to live a hundred more. I enjoy nothing but eating and sleeping.”
This sentiment was foreign to him. A hundred and seven years into his life, whenever he thought of death, a hot panic overtook him, getting under his collar and into his brain — just as it had when he was seventy, forty-seven, twenty-seven, even seven years old. He remembered one night bursting out of the apartment and running, barefoot and breathless, down Kaiserstrasse, until the chill of the autumn wind in his face and the rough cobblestones against his feet sent the panic scurrying back to its cage. A century had passed, but the attacks still came. Only now it wasn’t so easy to get out of bed in the middle of the night: he worried about knocking into something.
So he lay in bed, the Aerojet glowing beside him, and stared into the nothingness. Occasionally he had to push his hand over his mouth to stifle a gasp.
Several years later the little Japanese woman had a heart attack in her sleep and died. She was one hundred and fifteen years and forty-six days old. It was Jacob who answered the phone. When he turned to face Saul, the receiver pressed against his chest, the corner of his mouth was trembling. Saul knew what it was about. He rested his tube of airplane glue on his worktable and rose to take the phone.
“Congratulations,” said Jacob. “You made it.”
So the relatives began to come to Hastings again, though not immediately, and not before the thin-lipped adjudicator from Guinness, who presented Saul with a framed certificate and clapped him on the shoulder so forcefully that Jacob ordered the man to leave at once. The television reporters, too, descended with their moronic questions (“What was World War I like?” “What was the most depressing part of the Great Depression?”). The mayor of Hastings, only twenty-five years Saul’s junior, stopped by with a formal certificate. “I hope I’ll make it as far as you one day,” said the mayor. “What would be the odds of that, two codgers from Hastings?” He wished he could stay longer, he said, but he was due at the hospital for his dialysis appointment.
The two women from the Gerontology Research Group — the Sickle Sisters, Jacob called them — arrived two days later in their rental car. They had just returned from Okinawa, where they had attended the former record-holder’s cremation. They greeted Saul with false warmth.
“Please accept our congratulations, sir,” said the tall one, wincing.
He couldn’t fault them. They were like hospice nurses, or death-row wardens: the job demanded that they spend their days with the soon-to-be-dead. True emotional engagement would be detrimental to their work. Their purpose was to observe a unique and valuable scientific phenomenon. Saul, an aerospace engineer, knew what that was about.
A week later a dozen people wearing matching white T-shirts appeared at the doorstep. Jacob was at the store, so Saul greeted them himself. He took them at first for salesmen, and was about to slam the door when he noticed on their shirts a blown-up photograph of his own withered, frowning face. The lettering above it read OLDEST MAN IN THE UNIVERSE, OUR SAUL.
“Surprise!” the strangers yelled. Saul glanced uneasily between their faces and his own, staring back at him from their shirts. One man stepped forward and spoke in an excessively loud voice.
“Saul! It’s me, your great-grandson! Max!”
Very well, so it was. He hadn’t seen Max since the centennial. In the intervening years the man had narrowed unhealthily; his chest was flat, and his cheeks were like deflated tires. He didn’t appear to have inherited any segment of Saul’s genetic code. His teeth were uneven, and he was bald but for a few cobwebby hairs that gathered just above the ears. His nose, though, was distinctly patrician, a slender, fluted cylinder, no doubt a surgical flourish.
“It’s been fifteen years,” said Saul.
Max chuckled awkwardly. “Not that long, I don’t think!” As if to distract Saul, he thrust forward a skinny child. The boy had unusually long eyelashes and a devious grin. “This is your great-great grandson. Saul, may I introduce you to Saul?”
“Ah, yes,” said Saul senior, extending his hand. “We’ve met. At my centennial. You were a toddler then.”
Saul Junior shook his ancestor’s hand. “It’s a real honor, sir.”
Saul Senior laughed, and the other people standing outside laughed loudly in response. Saul stopped laughing.
“Who are all these people?” he asked Max.
“Descendants, Saul. Your blood. We’re here to celebrate you.”
But Saul did not believe that they were his descendants. He surely did not remember them from the centennial, and they barely resembled the younger Saul, or each other, let alone him. Nor did they seem even to know each other. He couldn’t be certain, of course — by now there must have been born dozens, if not hundreds of Wyngartens he’d never met. But these people seemed very odd. And in his gut he felt the familiar scurrying beginning again.
“I’m afraid I’m quite busy at the moment,” he said. He began to explain that he was in the middle of a new model — the Vought Cutlass, a Cold War jet fighter — that required immense concentration and sustained energy. But he was interrupted by another bout of laughter. He supposed that the idea of a one-hundred-and-fifteen-year-old man keeping busy must have amused them.
Max, still laughing, took the opportunity to shove Saul Junior through the door, and followed the boy into the house. Saul, fearful of being trampled, pulled to the side, and then the whole T-shirted coterie rushed in.
They filled the living room like moths, flapping about the furniture. To Saul’s astonishment, they put their hands on everything: the miniature Etruscan figurines that Jacob had brought home from a yard sale; the green archival cases containing issues of Aerospace going back five decades; the stately, broken-down radio with its torn speaker overlaid by curved striplings of wood arranged in a floral pattern. They left no room for Saul, so he stood uneasily in front of the fireplace until a large woman roughly three times his size, sighing with consternation, made space for him on the couch.
Max had taken a seat across from him, in Jacob’s armchair. Saul Junior knelt at his father’s feet. Max stared at the elder Saul with great intensity and, it seemed, hunger.
“Saulie boy. Saulie, Saulie, Saulie. You’re a hard man to get a hold of. With Jacob always answering the phone, and the door—”
“Max? I’m a little agitated. I have valuable things lying around—”
“What’s the secret?”
“The secret, Saulie. You know: the Philosopher’s Stone, the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth. What is it? Where is it?”
“Well, Max,” he said, clenching his jaw, “I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve told the reporters. My only secret is: Keep breathing.”
Max’s smile froze on his face. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I need to know, Saul.”
There was a loud crash. The framed photograph of the Aerojet launch had dropped from its hook above the fireplace and fallen onto the stone mantel. Saul jerked around and saw a man of roughly eighty-five years, with corncob glasses and ginger hair, cradling the crooked frame with trembling hands. There was a desperation around his eyes and his twitching nose, an eagerness that looked out of place on a man of that age.
“What are you doing?” said Saul, his voice rising. “What is this?”
“I’m only readjusting,” said the man with the ginger hair. “It looked askew.”
“Who are you, anyway?”
The man was briefly speechless. He looked distractedly off into the distance, and then his eyes focused again on Saul.
“I’m Arnold,” he said at last. “Your nephew. Arnold.” Arnold’s lips pressed flat together, sheepish. His T-shirt billowed over his slender frame. It was easily three sizes too large for him.
Saul stood up. “Max, I don’t like this. What is going on?”
“Wait,” said Max, the smile beginning to curdle on his lips. “We need to talk. Let’s be calm.” He rose and rested his hand on Saul’s shoulder. His voice grew quieter still. “I can tell the others to leave. How about that, Saul? Then it’ll be just you and me. Like old times. Like when I was a boy. Remember? Remember that, when I was a boy?”
Saul tried. All he could come up with was a large-faced smudge running madly around the dining table at the house on Orchard Drive. His daughter was Julia. Julia had a son, Harold; this Max was Harold’s son. And now Saul Junior. He suddenly regretted his shortness with Max. Maybe all of these people were his family after all.
“Tell me,” said Saul. “How is your father? My grandson. Harold.”
“That’s why I’m here,” said Max. His arm was becoming heavy on Saul’s shoulder. “My father is dead. Mother too. They weren’t seventy years old. Not even seventy!”
“Dead?” said Saul. “But when?”
Then Jacob backed in the front door, cradling a bag of groceries in his arms. When he turned and saw their visitors, the bag fell to the floor. Something cracked.
“Everyone out!” he cried. “Everybody get out!”
The descendants froze. They looked to Max, waiting for some cue.
“Hello, Jacob,” said Max. “We wanted to pay Saul a visit. To celebrate his achievement. You’re not his only family, you know.”
“What did I tell you, Max?” said Jacob, glaring. “We don’t want to see you.”
“I know that you don’t want to see me,” said Max. “But Saul has said no such thing.”
Jacob glared icily. Saul had never seen him so angry.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Max. “We were leaving anyway.” He turned to Saul. “I’ll look forward to continuing this sometime soon.”
Max turned to walk to the door, taking Saul Junior by the hand. The others followed, gently setting down Saul’s possessions, emerging from the bathrooms, the dining room, the cellar. The last person to leave, a sickly woman with pale yellow skin and whitish hair, appeared in the doorway to the garage. Saul had not noticed her before. She was holding his World War II Messerschmitt Bf-109 propeller airplane. It was only when Saul glared at her that she seemed to realize it was still in her hand. Seized by terror, she rested it on the kitchen table and hurried out. Jacob closed the door firmly behind her, and turned the lock.
“Sit down,” said Jacob. “You don’t look well.”
“Harold is dead. No one told me.”
“No one wanted to upset you.”
“Do you know how many of my people have died? The balance on the ledger shifted decades ago. I can absorb one more.”
Jacob sighed. “I should have told you. It’s just… Max. There’s some-thing wrong with him. He’s unstable.”
“He’s been calling. He thinks you can help.”
“He thinks you know something.”
“I don’t know a damn thing, Jacob.” Saul’s voice cracked, and he paused before continuing. “Not a single damn thing.”
Jacob shrugged. “That’s what I told them.”
“Is that what the others wanted? Were they all sick?”
“I don’t know who they were,” said Jacob. “But I don’t like that they have our address.”
The Hastings post office received such a large quantity of mail for Saul that Jacob had to register a special box. There were fan letters (You’re my favorite Super-C EVER) and requests for autographs, but most of all, there were questions. Although they touched upon various subjects — diet, psychology, exercise — they could be reduced to a single one: How do I live longer?
Television crews from England, South Korea, and Denmark filmed him during his afternoon walk on the forest road. Neighbors brought over baskets with fresh fruit and vitamins. Saul could not drive with Jacob into town without being assaulted by well-wishers. Young girls wanted to touch his skin: so smooth, so thin, like tracing paper. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to Hastings,” gushed Mrs. Cramble at the farmers’ market. “The best thing that’s ever happened to Vermont!”
It was unseemly the way Jacob, like a bodyguard, had to repel the townspeople. Saul decided not to go into Hastings anymore, and not to answer the door.
As it so happened, his great-grandson Max was the one person he did not have to worry about. Not two weeks after his visit, an envelope appeared on Saul’s doorstep. It had no stamp, nor an address; it simply said Great Great Poppy Saul. Jacob handed it to Saul when he brought him his breakfast in bed — a scoop of plain yogurt under a tablespoon of olive oil, a slice of rye toast, and a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. After he finished the yogurt and drained the last of the juice, Saul opened the envelope. The letter was written in a messy, uneven hand:
Dear Great Great Poppy,
My dad died six days after we came to see you. His heart was damaged.
He didn’t want to die.
Do you really have a secret?
If so, please write me at Saulthegreat323@gmail.com.
Saul (Jr.) Schapiro
“But this is very distressing,” said Saul, handing it over to Jacob.
“There’s nothing you can do,” said Jacob.
Saul nodded and rose from the bed. The note stayed in his head, but he couldn’t think about it until he went through his morning exercises: ten laps around the house, ten waist-bends. On warmer days, such as this one, he could still touch his ankles. Then he sat down at his worktable, where a new project awaited him: the Focke-Wulf Fw-190.
“This was the pride of Marshal Goering,” said Saul, laying out the pieces on the table, the curved segments of yellow balsa, the miniature propellers like crushed black flies, the rubber tires like slices of licorice.
He thought: His heart was damaged. He thought: He didn’t want to die.
“It looks like a beauty,” said Jacob.
“Oh?” Saul glanced over his spectacles. “Ah. Yes. It maintained superiority over the British Spitfire 5 for almost two years. It was faster, and it could carry more bombs.”
“I’ll let you to it.”
“Wait,” said Saul, picking up a plastic bomb. “Will there be more visitors?”
“I’m afraid there might be. You’ve become a kind of a celebrity. That’s how it is with these things.”
“I’ve done enough, damn it!”
Jacob looked up, alarmed by the tone of his grandfather’s voice.
“I don’t want to see them,” Saul continued, heat rising in his chest. “I don’t want people in our house. I don’t want people walking beside me on the forest road.”
“I just want to work on my planes in peace. Is that too much to ask? I couldn’t have helped Harold’s son. I don’t know anything!”
“I know,” said Jacob, touching his grandfather’s shoulder. “I know.”
Saul’s hands were shaking now. The plastic bomb in his hand fell to the table.
In the coming weeks the siege intensified. Visitors rang the doorbell all day; journalists from countries on the other side of the planet telephoned after midnight. Did Saul realize he was less than six months short of the official record for oldest living man ever, set by the Danish American Christian Mortensen, who was 115 years, 252 days old at the time of his death? (Yes, he did — the adjudicator from Guinness with the sandpaper lips had informed him.) How much longer did he think he would live? What was he living for?
“You want to know what most upsets me?” he asked Jacob one night. Jacob had just turned away a choir of young girls who had assembled on the front porch to sing “Edelweiss.”
“The constant harassment?”
“It’s not even that. I don’t like to be reminded constantly of my own death. I don’t care if I’m one hundred and fifteen years old. I didn’t want to die when I was fifteen, when I was thirty, when I was eighty — and I don’t want to die now. No one talks about this. But, damn it, it’s true.”
Jacob nodded. “All right, Saul. Don’t get worked up. Besides, at the rate you’re going, you’ll live to two hundred.”
“And then? And then? What happens then?”
His grandson rose and took the old man’s light head into his chest.
“There now. There.”
Jacob’s sweater grew damp, but he held Saul, held him until the sobbing had come to an end. Saul’s entire head fit into the palm of Jacob’s hand.
Later, after Saul had said good night and the lamps were switched off, he cried out from his bed.
“Yes?” Jacob ran in, breathless. He was wearing only his boxers, and his gut wobbled like a gyroscope. The movements of his limbs were clumsy and frantic.
“The Aerojet!” said Saul.
“Would you give me the Aerojet?”
“The Aerojet? Yes. Of course. The Aerojet.”
Jacob, calmer, picked up the model from the bureau and angled it on the bedside table until it reflected the light of the moon. The darkness dissipated. The room mellowed to a gray haze. Saul heard himself exhale.
“Saul,” said Jacob, “how do you feel? Physically, I mean.”
“Fine! I feel fine! Now you, too? You with these questions?”
“No, no. That’s not what I mean. I was thinking. I had an idea about how to get rid of all these people. Once and for all.”
“Yes? Let’s hear it.”
“Nope.” Saul shook his head. “The Sickle Sisters would stay after us with their clipboards and inquisitions. Same with Guinness. The newspapers and the rest wouldn’t be far behind.”
“That’s just the thing. We’d have to get rid of them.”
“And how might we do that? They never stop! They never will. It can only get worse once I pass the Mortensen fellow.”
“As I see it, there’s really only one option.”
“It’s quite simple,” said Jacob. “You have to die.”
On the way out of Hastings Jacob parked in the empty lot behind the post office and fed three envelopes into the mailbox. The first two were addressed to the Gerontology Research Group and Guinness World Records. The third, addressed to the Hastings mayor’s office, included a large check and the deed to Saul’s house. A letter, signed by Saul, bequeathed his house to the town. The single stipulation was that the garage, with its two hundred aviation models on display, was to be called the Aerojet Room; it should be open to the public, and admittance should remain free in perpetuity.
“I’m not sure this is a sharp idea,” said Saul, as they accelerated past the Stardust Diner and over the Hastings Bridge. It was the 162nd day of Saul’s 115th year, placing him exactly three months short of Christian Mortensen’s record. Jacob’s station wagon was filled to the roof with their possessions, including more than forty unopened boxes of new model airplanes and spaceships. Saul slumped in his seat like a bag of laundry, his head covered by a blue linen bedsheet so that he wouldn’t be visible from the street. Wedged between the two front seats were four framed photographs — the Aerojet launch, the portrait of Esther that had stood on Saul’s bedside table, and two portraits of Saul, one from his Aerobee retirement dinner, the other from the centennial party, with his children, Julia and Elon, at his side. They seemed like tokens from the life of a stranger.
“What if they find us out?” he asked Jacob. “Aren’t we breaking some law?”
“Everyone in the world is waiting for you to die. They’re more suspicious of you alive than dead.”
Saul crinkled his nose. “Just make sure to get the obituaries, will you?”
“Sure,” said Jacob, glancing anxiously at the small mass under the blue sheet.
“I sound grumpy, don’t I?”
“You could say that.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t feel grumpy. Actually, I feel good. I haven’t felt this good since my centennial.”
“You can take the sheet off now. We’re beyond the limits.”
Saul pulled the sheet down. He blinked in the spray of light. “I’m not kidding,” he exclaimed. “We’re free! This is a new beginning, isn’t it?”
Jacob laughed. “It sure is.”
“Now give me the music player.”
Jacob reached into the glove compartment and pulled out an iPod.
“This,” said Saul, “is what I’m talking about.” He moved his finger around the wheel, scrolling down to Count Basie. He found “It Won’t Be Long” and pressed play. As the brass reverberated in the car’s tinny speakers, a ghostly smile cracked open Saul’s soft face. His fingers begin thrumming on the dashboard.
“No, no babe, it won’t be long,” he sang in his small voice. “No, bab-ee, it won’t-a-be-long.”
Jacob, shaking his head in disbelief, merged onto I-91.
Two hours later, a handmade sign welcomed them to WILSON’S GORE, POPULATION TEN ELEVEN.
“We’re close,” said Jacob.
Saul nodded. As he replaced the bedsheet over his head, he thought, How precious was this life! The falling sun making blue crystals on the blue fabric, the low trickle of a forest brook audible in the distance, the insistent tapping of flies against the windshield, the smell of burned leaves in the air. A new adventure beginning. The cold, crinkly dusk welcoming them to the Northeast Kingdom.
Four-hundred-and-sixty-six million years ago two landmasses collided in the northeastern corner of Vermont, forming a two-thousand-square-mile region bounded by the Green Mountains to the west and the Connecticut River Valley to the east, filled in by lakes and dense forest and divided from the rest of the world. The Northeast Kingdom has never known a housing shortage. Drive into any of the region’s fifty-five towns and gores — or Newport, its single incorporated city — and you will find a person eager to sell you a home. There are inconveniences: few paved roads, fewer stores, a spotty electrical grid, extreme cold and blanket darkness during the winter months. But for pure isolation, few regions in this country can beat it.
Saul’s favorite thing about the new house was that it was only ten minutes away from an abandoned movie theater. The theater had a giant parking lot, which was barren except for the yellow grasses that had begun to sprout through the seams of the cracked asphalt. Saul hadn’t driven a car in fifteen years. Ever since they’d first passed the lot he’d begged Jacob to give him a lesson.
“The right pedal is the accelerator,” said Jacob, clicking on his seat belt. “The left is the brake.”
“Christ, Jacob. I’m not an amnesiac.”
The car eased forward, then pulled up, hard. Their heads lurched forward, then back.
“Saul? Are you okay? Saul?”
“I’m fine,” said Saul, flexing his neck. “Just forgot this was one of those new models. I tried to go into second gear.”
“It’s an automatic. Take your hand off the gearshift.” Jacob’s chin trembled. “I would like to go on record to say that I think this is a terrible idea.”
“Jacob, I’m one hundred and fifteen years old. I can make decisions for myself.”
“This is becoming a refrain with you.”
“Are you getting crusty in your old age?” said Saul.
“Seventy-one is old to most people.”
Saul pressed on the accelerator and the car stuttered forward. “Not to me.”
After several loops around the parking lot Saul started laughing, a wheezing sound that emanated from deep in his chest.
“What is it?” said Jacob, his fingers white on the dashboard.
“I love this. I love this so much.”
“Great. How much more?”
Saul, silent, kept circling. At the edge of the lot he spotted a dark shape disappearing behind the side of the building. He pushed down on the brake. Jacob again bounced forward.
“What is that?” said Saul. “Is there somebody?”
Jacob squinted but could not see anything. His vision was not good. It occurred to Saul that it probably wasn’t very safe for Jacob to be driving so much himself.
“Don’t move,” said Jacob. His voice was strained, frantic. “Did he see us?”
The curiosity was too much. Against his better judgment, Saul inched forward until they could see around the side of the building.
No one was there; only two porcupines the size of piglets. They roamed lethargically across the asphalt. Saul laughed loudly. A sudden wave of elation passed through him.
He opened his door and stepped out, and Jacob hastened to follow him. At the sound of the car door the animals did not move any faster, but pricked up their needles, becoming nearly twice as large as before.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” said Saul.
“I know what they are. Aren’t they incredible?”
“I suppose so,” said Jacob. He coughed, shivering in the cold. “Shall I drive us back?”
Saul ignored him. “They say sexual desire fades away in old age. That’s not exactly true.”
Jacob looked back and forth between Saul and the waddling porcupines. “You don’t mean…”
“Damn it, Jacob, I’m not saying that the porcupines make me hot. It’s only that watching them hobble after one another, their crazy quills raised in the air — there’s something exhilarating about that, don’t you think? Tonight — tonight I will go to bed with a smile on my face.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.” Jacob went back to the car and settled behind the wheel. He waited for several minutes while Saul shuffled behind the porcupine procession, shadowing them to the edge of the forest until, under a fallen tree, they disappeared. Saul burst into laughter, raising his hands to the sky.
Saul was elated to have his time back. He ate his yogurt in bed every morning, assembled his models in his sunlit workshop, and discovered a new daily walk along a forest path that began in his backyard and advanced beside a meandering stream before looping back to the house. Every few days, Jacob drove thirty minutes to a supermarket in West Charleston and brought back the Caledonian-Record and whatever other newspapers happened to be in stock. Two weeks after their move, the obituaries started appearing: SAUL WYNGARTEN, 115, OLDEST MAN IN THE WORLD. Mrs. Victoria Cramble was quoted as praising the “remarkable agility” of Saul’s mind and body until the last days of his life. There were no pictures of the Aerojet.
“These are for the fireplace,” said Saul, handing the newspapers to Jacob. “No one cares about science anymore.”
“Biology they care about. Longevity.”
“If they really cared about longevity — about the longevity of the species — they wouldn’t talk about me. They’d talk about investing in outer space. Nobody takes the long view.”
Jacob spent most of his time working on the house. He had bought it from a grateful real estate agent in Barton, nearly fifty miles west. The place had been abandoned for years, and was in a state of decay; most of the floorboards on the porch had rotted, the kitchen pipes needed to be replaced, and water stains like brownish lakes spread across the second-floor ceiling. Shingles peeled off the exterior. A window in the upstairs bathroom was broken and two sparrows, their necks snapped, decomposed in the bathtub. A brown couch in the living room had sprouted into a grotesque sea anemone. The agent recommended a contractor to Jacob; on afternoons when workers came over, Saul hid in his bedroom. Jacob told them that a friend was visiting. They assumed it was a lover, and didn’t pry.
After the first few months, when the major work on the house was finished and the excitement of their self-abduction began to cool, Saul noticed a change come over Jacob. He spent less time at his computer, trading equities. He woke later in the day, just before lunch, and retired directly after dinner. One afternoon, when Saul came down from his studio for a snack, he found Jacob lying in bed. The lights were out, but Jacob was awake.
“Tough going on the Rialto?” Saul asked him.
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Jacob, rotating ever so slightly toward Saul. An antiseptic odor filled the air. “I mean, it seems grotesque to care about making more money. We have more than we’d ever need. At least for the next century, say.”
“That sounds like cause for celebration!”
Jacob didn’t seem to hear him. He stared into the folds of his blankets.
“It’s just strange,” he said. “I’ve never lost like this before.”
“I mean, it’s not so much in the scheme of things. It’s just — my instincts must be off.”
“There’s no need to take it personal, Jacob.”
Jacob looked up sharply, as if becoming aware of Saul’s presence for the first time.
“You know how it is with veteran pitchers, when they lose velocity on their fastball? The good ones develop other strategies. They become crafty: they perfect their breaking pitches, they hone their command of the strike zone, and they rely on their knowledge, accumulated over the years, of the opposing hitters’ weaknesses. But it’s artificial — they’re on borrowed time. And they know it. After another year, maybe two, the batters figure out their tricks. Then it’s all over.”
“But there are always new tricks.” Saul was almost giddy in his effort to sound hopeful. He didn’t like seeing Jacob like this. “That’s the thing you need to understand. Always new tricks.”
“Maybe. But I’m too old to learn them.”
Saul didn’t know what to say.
“It’s okay, Saul. I’m just tired. I need to rest.”
“Yes. That might be it.”
“Can I ask you one thing?” said Jacob.
“Before you go, would you mind just closing the blinds? It’s very difficult to sleep with the light coming in around the edges.”
Saul’s one hundred and sixteenth birthday passed without comment; they had long ago lost track of time. But one morning Saul read the date on a newspaper Jacob had brought back from the market. When he mentioned at dinner that they’d missed his birthday, Jacob apologized gratuitously and promised to buy him a cake.
“That’s okay,” said Saul. “I’ll take a new carton of yogurt.”
“You know you’ve beaten Christian Mortensen.”
“The oldest man to ever live.”
“Ah, him. It’s funny — my life has become so small that the only names I ever need to remember are Jacob and Saul Wyngarten.”
“Christian Mortensen never made it to one sixteen. That, if not your birthday, is reason for celebration.”
They never had a party. The winter was hard on Jacob. No matter how many blankets he propped over himself on the couch, no matter how brightly the fireplace burned, he always complained of the cold. In March he developed a miserable cough and quarantined himself in his bedroom. Saul heard him every morning, hacking violently for nearly an hour. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. He knocked on the door.
No response. Saul knocked again, harder, and the door opened.
Jacob, deathly pale, stood in his boxers and a T-shirt with a yellow ring around the collar. He was shaking from his exertions. The blood vessels around his eyes had popped.
“You need to go to the hospital,” said Saul.
“I’m not leaving you.”
A bloody foam had formed on Jacob’s chin. Saul stepped back. He found in his pocket a handkerchief and held it over his face.
“Well, you’re not staying here. You’re too sick.”
“The closest hospital is in Colebrook. Over the New Hampshire border. That’s nearly three hours round trip. Plus waiting rooms. And they might make me spend the night. No way, I—” Jacob surprised himself with a violent cough. It crumpled him like a blow to the stomach. Blood spattered on the floor. He coughed more, then gagged slightly. Saul stepped farther away, until his back was pressed against the wall on the opposite side of the hallway.
“It’s just my throat,” said Jacob. “It hurts. My throat hurts. It really hurts. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts—”
He left in the car fifteen minutes later.
Saul had never felt more completely alone. He stood on the porch and listened to the chiming music of the frozen branches. They moved as if an animal, or person, were passing through them, but he was certain it was a trick of the wind. When he closed his eyes he saw his grandmother’s teaspoons clinking against the inside of ceramic cups, stirring milk-clouded coffee. A single truck rumbled by on Route 105, eleven miles south. The sky was dull purple. He made a fire and fell asleep in front of it. He woke at dawn in time to watch the final embers burn to ash.
Jacob returned two afternoons later, wearing an entirely new set of clothing. The clothes he had worn the day of his departure had been mislaid at the hospital, he told Saul; he had dispatched a nurse to bring his measurements and his credit card to the nearest men’s store.
“Your clothes were mislaid?” asked Saul. “I don’t follow.”
“How are you? Have you been eating?”
“The refrigerator still works.”
Jacob clapped Saul on the back and removed a full bag of groceries from the backseat of the car. He flinched under the weight and let out a light, shallow cough before righting himself. Jacob’s new polo shirt, Saul saw now, hung loosely from his shoulders; the belt was notched in the last hole, but still his pants billowed around his upper legs. If these items were indeed his size, his size had changed.
“What did they say?” asked Saul.
“About the cough.”
“Oh, that?” said Jacob, backing cautiously through the front door. “It’s perfectly fine.”
“Why were you there for two days?”
“Small-town inefficiency. Plain sloppiness. I was really beside myself.” He rested the groceries on the kitchen table and turned to Saul with a strange grin. “Some people, you know? Some people. You just can’t account for it.”
Saul nodded. Thin trickles of sweat descended from Jacob’s hairline down the side of his face and onto his collar. Jacob seemed not to notice.
“Are you okay?”
“Sure,” said Jacob. “Just a long drive. I’m going to take a little rest. I’ll be back in a few to put all this away and make dinner.”
But Saul could see that he wouldn’t be coming out again that day.
Saul tried to peek inside Jacob’s window at least once a day, when he went on his afternoon walk, but the blinds never lifted. “Just riding out the winter,” Jacob would call from the depths of his room, when Saul knocked. One morning, while Jacob was out on one of his final supermarket runs, Saul entered Jacob’s bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. He found eight different pill bottles affixed with stickers from the hospital. The pills were very small, and there were hundreds of them. Saul said nothing that night, but the next day he volunteered to do the grocery runs himself. His driving was flawless now, and if you drove in the mid-afternoon and kept to the country roads you could usually avoid encountering other cars.
“No way,” said Jacob. “If you got pulled over, I’d go to prison. This whole thing would end. You’d be committed to some kind of an elderly ward.”
“I can pass for ninety, maybe even eighty-five. I still have my posture. If anyone asks, I’ll say I’m visiting my grandkids.”
“Don’t be absurd. I’ll go. After my nap.”
Jacob escaped into his room, but not before leaving the car keys on the dining-room table. Whether this was intentional or not, Saul could only guess, but that afternoon, when he returned from the supermarket, Jacob didn’t comment. He eyed Saul backing through the front door with a bag of groceries in his arms and shook his head in awe. Then he withdrew into the darkness of the room and closed the door.
Toward the end of the next week, just as the streams began again to trickle through the forest, Saul awoke to a muffled thump. At first he thought he’d dreamed it. But then he heard the squeak of wood on wood, another thud, and a moan. Saul kicked his legs out of bed and stood up. He steadied himself on the bureau, the evacuation of blood from his brain making him dizzy, and made for Jacob’s room.
He found Jacob sprawled on the floor, halfway between his bed and his bathroom. One leg had been lassoed by the bedsheet; the poor man lay on his side, his head twisted awkwardly around, his wide, dry mouth gaping like a carp’s. His eyes rotated up and fixed on Saul’s.
“I fell,” he said at last. “I was trying…”
“That’s okay,” said Saul. He stepped slowly toward his grandson.
Jacob blinked and seemed to gain focus, but no part of his body moved.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You can’t catch this.”
“You know what it is?”
Jacob nodded. “It’s not contagious.”
Saul lowered himself to the floor and began unraveling the sheets. He pushed the body until Jacob flopped onto his back, his head flat on the ground.
“You can’t move. Is that right?”
Jacob turned his head a millimeter to one side and back again. Saul caressed his forehead. Jacob closed his eyes.
“I’ll drive you to the hospital,” said Saul. “Once you regain your energy.”
“I feel funny asking this,” said Jacob, looking up in Saul’s general direction. “But… I need to.”
“You can ask me anything. You know this.”
Jacob blinked again. Saul dabbed Jacob’s watering eye with his pajama sleeve.
“Is there a secret?” said Jacob.
“A secret for what?”
“Why?” His voice was a whisper. “Why are you still alive?”
“I don’t know, Jacob.”
“You can tell me. You know me. I’m not like the rest — the rest of them.”
“I wish I could.” Saul’s voice was soothing, a kind of lullaby. “I don’t know. I just want life. I want it so much.”
“But so do I.” A garbled, choking noise came from deep in Jacob’s throat. “I guess I thought that over the years I might, I don’t know — learn it from you. Or that I would catch it somehow. What’s the opposite of a disease — an immunity?” He coughed again. “We could be a comfort to each other. Forever.”
At his grandson’s words Saul withdrew slightly, as if to dodge a foul odor. “You’ll be okay, Jacob,” he said. “You’ll be okay.”
“I won’t,” said Jacob. “But you will.”
And then a thick curtain fell over his eyes. It was the same expression Saul had seen in the face of Jacob’s father, and the others at his centennial, after Joseph was found dead. He couldn’t believe it — not Jacob too, not after all their years together. It was too cruel. Jacob had loved him. Saul believed that. But then the hardness set like a plaster cast. Jacob’s features became rigid, and Saul realized what transformation was taking place. The skull, pressing against the thinning flesh, was making its true shape known.
Gently, but not without revulsion, Saul let Jacob’s head drop to the floor.
The next day, Jacob’s door still shut, Saul woke up early and drove the thirty-eight miles to Newport. Turning off of Main Street to Railroad Square, he found what he was looking for: a wooden sign, hanging from the eave of a large Victorian house, advertising the services of one Dr. Marshall Habersham M.D., General Practitioner. He parked in the circular driveway and walked up the stairs. The front foyer led into a study that had been transformed into a reception area. A bell chimed, and immediately a man entered from the opposite side of the room. He was young — forty, Saul thought, maybe fifty; perhaps sixty — freshly shaven, with thin-rimmed spectacles resting loosely on a wide nose, beneath a puff of damp reddish hair. A towel was folded over one arm.
“Can I help you?” said Dr. Habersham.
“I’d like a checkup,” said Saul. “My name is Joseph Wicker.” He didn’t know where the name came from; it just fell out of his mouth. He explained that he lived abroad and was visiting a nephew over in Island Pond for several months. He didn’t feel sick, but he was due for a physical and did not want to wait until he returned home. At his age, and so on. He could pay in cash.
Dr. Habersham nodded and shook Saul’s hand. “And what is your age, might I ask?”
“Ninety-one,” said Saul. “I’m ninety-one years old.”
“Well,” said the doctor, smiling. “Congratulations on that.”
He led Saul into a converted dining room, in which there stood an examination table covered by a sheet of wax paper. Photographs of New York City in winter, behind gaudy bronze frames, decorated the wall. Saul removed all of his clothes except for his white boxer briefs. Dr. Habersham palpated the thin, bluish skin of his chest, arms, neck, and back. Saul coughed on command and stared into the light of the otoscope. The doctor shined the light into Saul’s ears. He slipped the cuff of the sphygmomanometer around Saul’s scarecrow arm. The doctor nodded to himself, and then began to shake his head. Finally he left the room, having told Saul to get dressed. When he returned, his lips were arranged in an inquisitive curl.
“Where did you say you were from?” asked the doctor.
“Austria,” said Saul. “But I didn’t say.”
“You got a high diet of fish and vegetables there?”
“I suppose I do.”
“And you said you’re ninety-one?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Because I have to say,” said the doctor, “with all respect, I can’t believe that.”
Saul tensed. “I’m sorry?”
“Based on these tests, I wouldn’t put you a week over eighty-five. Eighty-five maximum.”
“They came out well?”
“Clean bill of health. I’m impressed.”
“How about the blood pressure? The spine? The stomach?”
“Nothing I can see. You might live to one ten, keep going this way, Mr. Wicker.”
“I see. You’re sure?”
“Listen — what’s your secret? What do you do to stay in this kind of shape? For a man in his nineties it’s astonishing. Is it Austria? Do you live in the mountains or something?”
“I have just one piece of advice,” said Saul, sighing. “Keep breathing.”
“Keep breathing!” Dr. Habersham laughed loudly. He took off his spectacles and wiped his eyes. “That’s good. Keep breathing!”
Saul gave him two one-hundred-dollar bills and left without saying another word.
He had once read that when an elderly person loses their spouse, they tend to die shortly thereafter. Jacob wasn’t a spouse, but he was Saul’s only friend, only family. So was this finally it? From some dark passageway fear waited to lurch at him, but for now he wasn’t afraid.
He stood outside Jacob’s bedroom door. If he called the police, they’d figure out who he was. He’d become a scientific experiment. They wouldn’t allow him to live. But how to bury the body? Jacob was a large man, even at the end, and Saul wasn’t strong enough to carry the corpse, let alone dig a hole in the ground. Yet if he didn’t act soon the body would begin to decompose.
But he couldn’t resolve this now — it was 3 p.m., time for his walk. The routine could not be disrupted. He had to keep moving. This was essential. As horrible as Jacob’s death was, he needed badly to keep moving.
He stepped into the overgrown backyard and turned in to the forest, dodging a branch that came at him like a beckoning, arthritic finger. Lost in thoughts of Jacob, the Aerojet, his obituaries burning in the fireplace, he shuffled along the dirt path, enclosed by the familiar density of the old trees. Squirrels, in their perpetual state of mortal terror, darted through the underbrush. The leaves vibrated with insect life. Saul absorbed all this and felt as if he were, in some deeper sense, merging with the forest — that his heart shared the pulse of the life around him, that he was a distant appendage of some vast organism. But then the foliage rustled more purposefully, urgently, and it seemed as if something — or someone — was coming through the woods for him.
Of course that was impossible. It was probably just a pair of porcupines.
Yet when he turned a corner he found himself face-to-face with a man of about one-hundred-and-ten years. This man was even shorter than Saul, with a long, healthy face and a straight back. He wore hiking clothes: a plaid cotton shirt, brown leather boots, and khaki shorts that bore robust, wiry legs.
He looked familiar. This was alarming. To be discovered by someone from his previous life would be ruinous. It’d all be over for him. With irrational determination, Saul turned and began walking back to the house.
“Hey there,” said the man.
Saul moved more quickly, his knees grinding in their joints with every step.
“Don’t be stupid,” said the voice. “You’re going to fall.” He seemed to be closing the distance.
Saul was almost running now. His lungs burned. His left arm, unaccountably, throbbed. He misjudged a stone in the path, his foot landing awkwardly on it, and he tripped. For a horrible moment, as the ground suddenly started to rush up at him, he was certain that he was going to fall on his face. But he managed to land his other foot and, after stumbling for several steps, he grabbed on to a tree, hugging it. Branches cut into his fingers; his forehead knocked gently against the bark.
The voice was directly behind him. He turned.
The man was watching Saul with a look of concern. “Are you all right there?”
“Do I know you?” said Saul, his chest still heaving.
“You might,” said the man, with a crooked smile. “But we’ve never met.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Christian,” said the man, extending his arm. “Christian Mortensen.”
He knew the name, he thought. But from where? Then it came to him.
“Christian Mortensen? But — you’re dead. You died before your hundred-and-sixteenth birthday.”
“That’s what the paper said,” said Mortensen, his eyes bright and flinty.
Saul straightened his back. “Explain yourself. What is this?”
“Like you, I was exhausted by the attention — the scientists, the journalists, the family members. What could I tell them that they didn’t already know?”
“Exactly. Just keep breathing.”
Saul nodded to himself; he tried to arrange his thoughts.
“What do you want?” he asked. “You can have the record from Guinness. I have no use for it.”
Mortensen threw his head back and laughed.
“I don’t want the record. Besides, it’s not mine. There’s a Japanese man among us, Kyozo. When I was born, he was already married with children.”
“There are others like you and me,” said Mortensen. “You are not alone.”
“How did you find me? How did you come here?”
“We keep better records than those idiots at the Gerontology Research Group. We always want to increase our numbers. We learn from each other.”
“How many of you are there?”
“Many. They look forward to meeting you, Saul. You won’t be a freak anymore. You’ll just be one of us. No one will care about your age. No one will ask you imbecilic questions.”
Around him Saul saw columns of sunlight descending through the canopy, the wide branches of spruce needles waving like fans in the breeze, a file of ants lumbering along the crease of a dead brown leaf. He shut his eyelids, hard, and when he opened them again he half-expected that Mortensen would be gone. But the man was still there in his silly hiking boots.
“So you know the secret,” said Saul.
“You mean, why we’ve made it so far?”
“Yes,” said Saul, bracing himself up. “Why we’re still here.”
Mortensen shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know. None of us do.”
“Ah. That’s what I figured.”
“I do have a theory, though. It goes like this: Most people think they want to live forever, but in fact they don’t. They want to give up. They’re tired, they’re in pain, they’ve lost the ones closest to them. Their bodies don’t want to go on. Their minds reject themselves. Their spirits are ready to pass on to the next place.”
“And you and me — we’re different?”
“Of course. We want to stay. Badly. Even after everyone we’ve known and loved has left. That makes us strange.”
“Of course, it’s nice to live together. We can help each other out.
I can help you move your grandson’s body, for instance.”
Saul blanched. “You know about Jacob?”
“We wouldn’t have intruded while he was still alive. But we thought you needed some help.”
“Yes,” said Saul. “I do. I need a little help.”
“Very well. Let’s head back.”
Saul felt faint. But he followed when Mortensen began to walk back to the house.
“After this, after the burial,” said Saul. “I’m still not clear. What do we do?”
“You join us. If you like.”
“We have some property not far from here. In the Northeast Kingdom. You’ll like it.”
“What do we do there?”
“Anything. You can bring your airplanes, if you want.”
“I see. I think I would like that.”
They walked in silence.
“Is that it?” said Saul. “We just sit around?”
“Mostly we do the same thing we’ve always done. We live.”
“That’s it? Just live?”
“That’s all there is.”
The path ended and the white house emerged from the bramble.
“Yes,” said Christian. “We hope. We hope everything will turn out all right.”
“Well,” said Saul, bounding up the stairs to his back porch, “that is something I know how to do.”
And so Saul, with a spring in his step, went inside to retrieve his grandson’s decomposing corpse.