When my wife Ellen was alive, she and I sometimes watched storms roll in over the Gulf of Mexico, drinking cold vodka martinis and stepping inside only when the first warm droplets fell on our heads and sent us scrambling for cover. And sometimes on those stormy evenings, when the wind was just right or when the dark clouds eclipsed just enough sunlight, I would smell lime cologne and cigarettes, or hear the tinny notes of Eine kleine Nachtmusik or the deep, velvety voice of Zarah Leander singing Kann Denn Liebe Sünden Sein? And I knew Danny was nearby. But like the south Florida summer showers, the feelings flashed, flooded me with melancholy, and rolled across me leaving only the barest remnants of memory. I soon forgot him again, or convinced myself that his scent or the sounds he so loved were a product of the heat or the booze.
I would like to believe I let the memories slide away in deference to my wife, who never knew about Danny. But sometimes while she slept beside me, her breath heavy with cocktails and menthol cigarettes and ragged sleep, I saw him standing at the foot of the bed. I would reach down into my pajama pants to stroke myself, watching him do the same, standing in the half-light looking just as he did when I last saw him in 1945.
Now that I am alone in the rambling seaside house, I see Danny often. He will appear several evenings in a row, staring at me from across the butcher-block island in my kitchen, watching me stir cream into my midnight coffee, or appearing next to me in the bathroom mirror as I shave. I have grown as accustomed to his presence as I have to his silence, for, though the tinny gramophone music sometimes sounds so real I find myself reaching for the television remote to adjust the volume, Danny never makes a sound—not when his lips move in joking, laughing conversation; not when he cries out as he spills his ghostly seed at the foot of my bed.
I have not seen him tonight, though the rain pummels the house. The swirling spiral arms of a category three hurricane named Rose shake the storm shutters and drop limbs on the roof. I light a fire in the fireplace—a rare pleasure in Florida perhaps, but this late season storm brought with it a cold dampness that creeps into my joints and reminds me of the abuse to which I have subjected them for eight decades.
I know my children would say that starting a raging fire in the fireplace during a hurricane is reckless. What would happen if a tree fell on the fireplace and started a fire? My daughter’s voice chides me. But I can only assume that collapse of my living room wall might cause more problems than a fire that would doubtless be quickly doused by the torrential rains. And although I hear her speaking as clearly as I hear the circling winds outside, my daughter is not here, and I am too old to worry about the what-ifs any more.
And so I have Mozart on the stereo and I am sitting with a cocktail, watching the fire and listening to the storm outside. Lightning flashes and the thunder pounds the house like the fists of a giant. The power has flickered a couple of times, causing the CD to skip in place like an old vinyl record, but the reading lamp beside my chair so far continues to cast its golden circle around me.
I watched a few hours of television coverage of the hurricane this afternoon, but the hysteria of the Atlanta-based anchors soon set my teeth on edge. The mandatory evacuation notice for Sarasota County was an order with which I had no intention of complying. In the end, I had to turn the damn thing off before I smashed it, an act I would regret later, especially when the early morning hours call me back to watch old reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Lucy or Bewitched. I used to make fun of Ellen for her addiction to her “stories,” though she laughed it off. Even near the end—when her sight had failed and I would sit with her and describe the action on the screen—she knew the solace the television could provide. Sometimes I tell my grandson that television is the last remaining companion of my generation, allowing us to watch our younger selves as we shuffle into oblivion. He always tells me I’m only as old I feel. I laugh and tell him that’s the remark of a very young man indeed and to call me when he’s thirty or forty or eighty. We grin at each other and he asks what’s on the tube tonight.
For me, television is a time machine in which I can escape the world of the present, the world in which my grandson fights in an illegal war for oil rights and war profiteering contracts; in which my beloved New Orleans has been filleted like a flounder and left to rot in the sun; and in which my daughter cannot marry her lover of twenty years because as a culture we are too obsessed with moral pedantry and glorified violence to recognize the power of love or equality.
My daughter’s partner Susan says I was born a century too soon—that I’d make a damn fine twenty-first century freedom fighter. I always tell her when I was in Germany I was fighting for the present, not the future. I have no use for the future now, I tell her. She just shakes her head when I get like this. Sometimes she reminds me that Jake’s in Iraq and that he’s my future. Sometimes she just calls me cantankerous and kisses me on the forehead like an addled uncle. God, I love that woman.
Ellen always accused me of walking through my life backward, turning away from the future, walking through the present without taking any notice, and talking endlessly about things that happened in the past. I think most of us go through life facing backward or forward, ravenous for the past or the future, unable to look into the bared fangs of the moment in which we stand. It is a gift, or perhaps a curse, to be able to do that, to live in the moment so completely that you forget where you are going or where you have been, grasping each second and squeezing your life out of it like water squeezed from a washcloth.
I received this gift only once. Long ago.