Men of the World
Neil had a three-hour drive ahead of him and a new job to start in the morning. He'd planned to leave an hour ago but here he still was, sitting in the armchair opposite his granddad on the sofa. Outside, shadows were beginning to cluster around the pond and in among the bare branches of the trees. The last time he visited it had been summer. His granddad had just moved out to the old farmhouse then and he'd come with Shelley.
Whatever conversation they'd had was exhausted but each time he began to formulate a leave-taking phrase, the old man started up with something else. He'd offered him some 'perfectly good overalls' that had got to be too large; Neil had waved this away. Now he was complaining how all the phone calls he ever got were from salesmen. He let them talk, he said, but he wasn't so senile he'd actually buy anything. Neil nodded but didn't pursue the subject. The old man was too proud, he thought, to come out and say it, but all afternoon, whether they'd been talking about the family or events in town, football or the chestnut mare in the next-door field, his theme had been the same: he was lonely.
The heating pipes coughed and, after a moment, his granddad followed suit. Neil glanced at him and, in the fading light from the big back window, the distance between them seemed to lengthen. It was a sort of optical illusion, looking at other people through the wrong end of a telescopehe could recall other occasions when he'd found himself staring like this. From a distance he saw how age had done its work on the old man, reducing his limbs and wasting his face, leaving him shriveled and stooped. And yet, mixed with the pity Neil felt as he looked at him, he couldn't deny that there was a certain satisfaction.
He'd lived with his granddad for five years, eleven to sixteen. The house, where the old man lived alone, had been not unlike this one, only closer to town. He hadn't wanted to move in with himas a boy he'd lived in fear of his mother's fatherbut his parents were divorcing and when his mom made the announcement he didn't protest. In the five years that they lived together he hadn't lost that fear, although he'd learned to conceal it. Timothy Timid, his granddad used to call him sometimes, or Timmy for short.
'There's not as many birds as there used to be.' The old man had seen him turn away toward the window. 'That's why I got the binoculars, thought there'd be rabbits as well. Maybe I'm too close to the road.'
'Maybe,' said Neil dully. Loneliness seemed to have taken his granddad by surprise, as if he'd only recently discovered the condition. But what had he expected, moving all the way out here at eighty-seven? His doctor had counseled against the move but there was no arguing with him. 'You're my doctor,' he'd told the man, 'you're not my priest.'
'One of these days,' Neil's mother said, 'I'm going to show up with his groceries and find him sitting dead on that sofa.'
'Nineteen nineteen I was born,' said his granddad abruptly and Neil wondered if he was asking or telling.
'That's right, after the war.'
'If I was you,' he croaked, 'I wouldn't bother carrying on past eighty.'
Neil would have liked to shrug this off with a smile but, coming from that wasted figure, he couldn't. It struck him that, with the move and his new job, he might never see the old man again; the next he heard he might be dead. He swallowed and at the same time an urgent desire welled up in him to share something real with his granddad. He mightn't get another chance, only what was there to say? He could tell him he and Shelley no longer slept in the same bed, but that was a detail he hadn't even told his mother. He could have told him they'd decided to give it another go, in the new place, even if he wasn't sure why. 'I wish I could stay longer,' he said at last.
'Know what I miss?' asked his granddad.
'Sex. I miss having sex. I reckon I enjoyed it more than most men, certainly got my share.'
'Only wish I'd had more of it while I still could. I had enough opportunities, even while your grandmother was alive.' He began describing a woman who ran a string of laundromats, and another, red-headed one who rode a horse. His eyes were still directed toward Neil but they were no longer focused. Neil wasn't sure whether he'd slept with these women, or just wished he had.
'No sense in regrets,' he suggested.
'I've no regrets,' said the old man sharply. 'I've got my memories at least.' He hauled himself up from the sofa and shuffled off to bathroom.
He seemed to be in there a very long time. It crossed Neil's mind that he might be trying to masturbate. And then, as he went on waiting, it dawned on him that that last comment had been meant as a put-down. Wasn't that just like his granddad, reasserting himself, belittling Neil as though he were a teenager again? I might be old now, he was saying, but I was a real man once. You, you're nearly thirty and no kids. What have you ever done except sit at a desk getting fat? And it was true, of course; Neil's life had been uneventful, without adventure.
The old man emerged from the bathroom with a new spring in his step, or not a spring exactly but with more energy at least. 'That's better,' he said as he flicked on the light and crossed the living room to the sofa. To Neil's ear, the voice, too, seemed suddenly louder. Could the old bastard have been exaggerating his feebleness to make him feel guilty, making his voice sound weak, even taking Neil's arm as they walked in the garden? A familiar resentment began to kindle.
'How's that pretty little wife of yours? Still keeping you in check?'
'I'm having an affair,' said Neil.
'You are?' said the old man. 'How long you been seeing her?' He'd always seemed fond of Shelley but he was clearly delighted.
'Just a month or so. We meet Tuesday and Thursday, lunchtimes.'
'At lunchtime! That's fast work.' Perched on the edge of the sofa, he was actually rubbing his hands together. 'Where'd you do it?'
He shrugged. 'Hotel rooms.'
'What's she like when you fuck her?'
The old man was all ears but Neil couldn't stomach any more. A few moments ago he'd wanted to tell his granddad something real, something meaningful that would bring them closer together. Wasn't this a perfect opportunity, the last opportunity, maybe, that he'd get? 'Actually, granddad, it's not a woman I'm having an affair with.'
The old man didn't move. Only his eyes grew smaller, squinting. 'You're kidding me.'
He'd wanted to share something with his granddad, but also, he now realized, to provoke him. It crossed his mind to add that his lover was black. Instead he asked, 'Still want to hear what it's like when I fuck him?'
'I never. . . with a man.'
'You don't say.'
There was a silence. Somewhere upstairs the heating pipes coughed again. Neil braced himself for the inevitable, but when at length his granddad spoke he seemed to have recovered from his shock and his voice was mild. It was almost pleading. 'You could bring him here. I mean when you come back up to visit us. You'll need somewhere to stay, won't you? Can't take him home to your mother.'
Briefly, Neil was at a loss for words. They'd never discussed homosexuality of course, not that he could recall, what would there have been to discuss? And yet the old man's offer appeared to be genuine. 'He has his own place,' he said, 'in town.'
'Bring him to visit then; he'd probably enjoy some fresh air. The daffodils will be in in a month or two.'
He felt cheated by the old man's display of tolerance, as though he'd flicked a switch and no light had come on. 'Alright,' he conceded, 'I'll bring him the next time I'm up here.'
'Great!' The old man's face broke into a grin, to which Neil couldn't help responding. They sat grinning at one another until he began to feel self-conscious and inane. 'If you like,' he said deadpan, tilting his head toward the window, 'I'll take him outside and fuck him there. You can watch us through your binoculars.'
The old man's eyes narrowed as if he wasn't sure what he'd heard, and then they widened. Finally his face exploded into laughter, saliva spraying in all directions. Neil laughed, too; they both roared with laughter. He couldn't remember them ever laughing like that before, or sharing a joke even. The old man's laughter sounded strange.
As their laughter subsided he stood up. 'I should get going,' he said.
'Yes,' said his granddad, still relishing the joke, 'you go on now. Drive safe. Give my love to Shelley.'
'I'll give you a call, let you know how we're doing. And I'll get mom to come out more often.'
'Oh, me, I'll be fine.' He had his old combative look back on, staring the world in the face. 'Never minded my own company.'
'I don't mind it either'this was a subject about which Neil felt he knew something'but that doesn't mean I want to be alone all the time.'
'Yes,' said the old man, sounding surprised, 'you're right I suppose.' And then, looking up from the sofa: 'There is one thing you could do for me; I don't like to ask your mother.'
His fingers stroked his whiskery chin. 'How about sending me the odd dirty video? You can get them over the Internet these days, right?'
'Nothing too tame.'
He didn't see how he could say no.
His granddad insisted on accompanying him to the car. Neil walked with his arm over the old man's shoulder, ready to support him, and it felt okay; it didn't feel forced at least. It felt as though their relationship had subtly transformed itself. In spite of everything that lay between themthe years of their history together and the barriers peculiar to menhe'd managed to forge a connection with his granddad, and it hadn't been so difficult. They were equals now, two lonely men of the world, one old, the other not so young.
They parted with a hug and Neil got into the driver's seat. Even then, however, his granddad wanted a last word and he was obliged to lower the window. The old man grinned and hooked his rheumatic fingers over the glass. 'About those videos,' he said, 'why not slip in a gay one? That way I'll know what to expect when you come, how it all works.'
They laughed again and then Neil put the car in gear and rolled away up the long driveway. As he went he watched the old man's figure grow smaller in the rear-view mirror. He was standing motionless, arms hanging by his sides like a puppet. His face in the dusk was no more than a shadow. And all of a sudden it struck him that the old man hadn't believed a word of it. Wasn't that what his last crack had been about, showing that he wasn't fooled? He desperately wished that he could bring a lover to the farmhouse, just to show him, just to see what he'd say.
The driveway curved right and, glancing sideways, he saw the old man turn to head back inside. The front door opened and then he was gone, and Neil knew that not so much had altered. His granddad remained a closed book, unfathomable as he'd always been. Did he regret his decision to move back out to the countryside? Was there an element of play-acting, of manipulation, or was he just as feeble as any other eighty-seven-year-old? Maybe he'd live to be a hundred and ten. Had he believed Neil and, if so, did he really not mind? Or was he so lonely, perhaps, that he could no longer afford to antagonize anyone, not even a gay grandson, Timmy? Neil didn't know.
Coming to the gate, he stopped the car but left the engine running. There never had been any lover, of course, but he sincerely wished there had; there were times he ached for it. And whether the old man believed him didn't make it any more or less possible. That he should come home for a visit, meet a mana black man, why not?and bring him to meet his granddad. Fuck him out the back even. He felt a surge of optimism in which everything was possible and he could do all of these things. He would show the old man, teach him a lesson; or else, at least, make him less alone for a couple of hours. He would do both of those things together, why not? Touching the accelerator he tore out through the gate and onto the road. There was nothing on Earth to stop him, if only he didn't die first.