Thursday

LAST MAN STANDING: The Pact

Hanratty is tired, very tired. He labors mightily for each breath. Emily is already in bed, reading. At ninety, almost three years older than her husband, she feels no shame getting into bed at what Hanratty considers an embarrassingly early hour.
“I can’t believe it,” he says, sheepishly letting himself down next to her on the bed. He does not slip his long legs under the covers, for that would be an admission that he is actually going to sleep. “This is the time farmers from Iowa go to bed, born-again Christians from Kansas and Idaho.” He picks up “Nicholas Nickleby” from the stack of Dicken’s novels he keeps on his night table. One of his projects has been to reread all of Dickens before he – Hanratty shakes his head, driving the thought from his mind.
“I don’t think what time you go to bed is any measure of how cool you are,” says Emily. “They say that for every decade older you get, you go to bed one hour earlier.” Emily speaks with the same down-to-earth pragmatism that first endeared her to him almost seventy years ago. He can never once remember Emily steering herself away from something she wanted to do or someone she wanted to have lunch with because it wasn’t de rigueur.
“In Buenos Aries, people are just now stepping into the shower to get dressed for dinner,” he says.
“Those poor people,” responds Emily, not lifting her eyes from her book. “They’re not going to get into bed before two. And when they do, it’ll be on a full stomach. Yuck.”
Tim opens the Dickens novel on his chest, reads three or four paragraphs, and then, without realizing it, passes into sleep. Emily lifts the book off him, watching for a few minutes as his chest heaves and he opens his mouth, making long, arduous inhalations that seem never quite to satisfy. It scares her, but when he complains about it in the morning she will pooh pooh his concerns.
She reads another five minutes or so, then turns off her light. Rolling onto her right side, she snuggles against Tim’s back. She finds this both calming and sensuous. It isn’t sex, but it isn’t not sex, either.
Sometime around 10:15 to 10:20, after little more than an hour of sleep, Hanratty inevitably will wake. This particular evening, however, he opens his eyes and the oversized numerals of the digital radio clock staring him in the face read 10:36. Hanratty’s excitement at having managed to stay asleep, if only a bit longer than usual, is dashed when he reaches for his first conscious inhalation since waking. His immediate thought had been that perhaps the extra sleep was a sign of a deeper than normal relaxation, a letting go. But the breath is as truncated and unsatisfying as the tens of thousands that have preceded it over the past eight months.
After an endless string of visits to doctors, the diagnosis was emphysema. “But I’ve never really been a smoker,” said Hanratty.
The pulmonary specialist, a man in his early forties, merely shrugged. “I must tell you,” he said, “at your stage in life the disease is both degenerative and incurable.” His manner was curt and unsympathetic, as if to say, You’re so old, what do you give a shit – you don’t have a beautiful red-headed nurse who has a crush on you, or a kid who’s a second-team All American soccer player at Cornell, or a burgeoning 401K plan that makes looking at the stock pages every morning as big a rush as a night at the craps tables in Vegas.
Hanratty replied, “Wait till you’re eighty-six, pal. You’ll be hanging on for dear life, just like the rest of us.” One of the few consolations of being this old was just opening his mouth and letting out all the cutting retorts and observations he used to keep under wraps.
Wearing nothing else but his sleeping tee shirt, Hanratty slips out of bed and totters out of the pitch-black bedroom as he has almost every night of the past fifty years. Back in their house in Armonk, he would climb three flights of stairs to the office he’d set up in the attic. Since their retirement to a one-floor house in Desert Vistas in Scottsdale, he simply heads toward the den down the hall, his now pendulous balls banging against his thighs like a grandfather clock. Grandfather cock, he thinks. He will have to write it down.
Hanratty enters the den, pulling the door closed behind him. He turns on the light and puts on the outfit he keeps here expressly for the purpose of keeping warm during the two to three hours it will take to feel sleepy enough to climb back into bed: thick pair of Thorlo socks, sweatpants, heavy cashmere sweater, longshoreman’s cap. He can’t cover his near naked body quickly enough, for it has come to repulse him.
Next, he sets up the oxygen tank, fitting the plastic tubing under his nose and inserting the two little prongs into his nostrils. He breathes in deeply, and it helps a bit, but not nearly enough. When the breathing problem first descended upon him, he avoided the oxygen unless he was absolutely gasping for air. The doctors had warned that too great a dependence on it would render it increasingly less effective. And that too much oxygen in the blood stream would eventually destroy brain tissue.
Hanratty isn’t sure whether he’s reached that point or not, but he has noticed that he can no longer do the Times crossword puzzle past Wednesday, when just two years ago he would complete the Saturday puzzle in less than half an hour. Perhaps it’s just good old-fashioned dementia, he wonders. But he is fairly certain he isn’t going senile. Not yet, anyway. As difficult as life has become, he still enjoys the workings of his own mind. Of that, he is sure.
Hanratty’s father was also a man who had great difficulty in sleeping through the night. His pattern was to get up and drink in front of the TV set. Early on, when he realized he was in the grip of an insomnia every bit as persistent as his dad’s, Hanratty determined he must make better use of the time. Purchasing a shrink-wrapped pack of old-fashioned, black and white pebbled grammar school notebooks, he began to write down his observations. As the years of sleeplessness went by, the shelf over his desk became filled with dozens upon dozens of notebooks.
After his forced retirement as editor-in-chief of Dutton Books, Hanratty joined forces with an illustrator; and the two began a small but enjoyable career by converting Hanratty’s notebooks into humorous, illustrated non-books, among them “Gentiles Who Hang Around Only With Jews,” “How To Asphyxiate Your Asthmatic Child,” “Golfing Tips For The Criminally Insane,” and “99 Ways To Outlive Your Wife.”
He takes out a fresh notebook from his supply on the shelf. On the cover he writes, “Sex Acts I Will Go To The Grave Without Having Experienced,” making a mental note to shorten the title. He opens to the first page and writes: 1) My wife will never fuck me up the ass with a strap-on dildo. 2) Although I have on occasion done it to her, I have never asked my wife to rim me. Will the pleasure outweigh the embarrassment? 3) I have never fucked my wife up the ass, nor anyone for that matter. 4) My wife and I have never had a threesome with another woman. 5) Or another man, although once when we rented a sailboat with the Posnicks, Alex came into our bunk and casually plopped down on the bunk with us.
Hanratty wonders if Posnick were aiming at something, or if it were just the innocent act of a good friend. He has an impulse to call up Posnick and ask him, but Posnick is dead. So is Stella. In fact, so is everyone in the gang of eight, as they used to call themselves, except Emily, Hanratty himself, and Raymond Phayer, stashed away in a nursing home down in Tempe, his mind totally gone.
Grabbing a fresh notebook off the shelf, Hanratty christens it, “Dead Friends.” In it, he writes, 1) Alex Posnick, 2005, fatal heart attack at the age of 71, rumored to have died in flagrante with his 86 year old girlfriend, the widow Norsgaard; 2) Stella Posnick, 2005, drowned alone in backyard hot tub several days after learning of death of estranged husband; 3) Miranda Phayer, 2001, only 53 years old, of cancer of the spine, youngest of us all: 4) Ethan Lerner, 67, heart attack, only two weeks after his wife Sarah left him for Raymond Phayer; 5) Sarah Lerner, 74, of lung cancer.
As has often happened during the middle of the night, Hanratty gets totally caught up in his writing. He thinks in the morning he will have to get together with Levenstein, his illustrator. But Levenstein is dead three years now. The realization comes crashing down on Hanratty. This is why it’s been years since he’s had a new book published. All these ideas and no illustrator to bring them to life. He has always found the process magical. You give a guy a dry, white piece of paper with anywhere from ten to forty words on it, and the next day he hands you a tableau with characters, personalities, plot, and sometimes humor – a whole little world, really.
Once again, Hanratty finds himself struggling for breath. He checks his oxygen tank. Empty. Before he gets a new one out of the cabinet, he goes to the bathroom and pees. Washing his hands, he stares at himself in the mirror, hating his mottled skin, his now completely hairless dome, his yellowed teeth, his sagging cheeks. He pictures himself interviewing illustrators in their twenties and thirties, watching their eyes as this haggard man, gasping for breath, presents his ideas about fucking his 90 year old wife up the bum. It isn’t the content, he thinks, it’s the package. Too shriveled. Too unappealing. No one wants to work with someone who looks like me, no matter how clever I might be.
I look just like Sam Morgenstern, he thinks. He and Emily have become the Morgensterns, the ancient couple who lived at the end of their block in Armonk to whom everyone brought cookies at Christmas time but during the entire rest of the year studiously avoided. Too stooped, too hard of hearing, too needy for company.
A rage surges in Hanratty. How grossly unfair to have lived so long, to be so fragile, so cut off, so ignored, and now, on top of it all, to struggle so mightily for oxygen, something that the narcissistic young on their block don’t even think about as they lust for other things – sex with their neighbor’s spouse, an even bigger year end bonus, the new Bentley Flying Spur.
His heart now beating wildly and erratically, Hanratty opens the medicine cabinet and takes out the vial of Atenelol beta blocker he keeps here for late night emergencies. The night, much more than the day, seems to roil Hanratty’s heart. Dreams, rages, dread – over the past decade he has come to recognize them as the signposts of an impending episode of atrial fibrillation.
He swallows one of the tiny pills, twenty-five milligrams worth, with a glass of water, debating whether or not to take another. The doctor has warned him that too much of the beta blocker can slow his heart rhythm down too much. So tiny, he thinks, yet so fucking powerful. It would be so easy to swallow a dozen. A hundred. Talk about slowing one’s heart down.
“Emily,” he says, “wake up.”
“What is it?”
“I want to talk to you. I have the most amazing idea.”
“Tell me in the morning.”
“No, it can’t wait.” Hanratty turns on the lamp on her night table, and she rolls over, turning her back to it. “What,” she says.
“Sit up. You have to look at me.”
“Oh, Christ, Tim, you always do this to me.” She sits up, rubbing her eyes. Her husband is looming over her. “Sit down, will you,” she orders.
Hanratty sits on the edge of her side of the bed. He holds up the vial of Atenelol. “I have found the perfect way for us to escape this shit hole existence.”
Quite suddenly, she reaches out and tries to grab the vial. “Give me those!”
“Not me alone – us together.”
“Your breathing will improve, you’re just going through a phase. It’s anxiety.”
“It’s not just the breathing, you idiot. It’s everything – not being able to play golf anymore, no friends left, no sex, no one to illustrate my
books – “
“You’ll find someone else. There are dozens of artists around here.”
“We have nothing left to live for. And it’s only going to get worse.”
Emily is shrinking away from him. “You’re scaring me, Tim. You really are.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just… it would be such an easy way to get it over with. So brave and different. I hate hanging on to every pathetic extra hour, just like every other slob, the skin hanging off us like in a concentration camp.” He holds up his bare arms. “Look at me. I used to have muscles, now I’m all skin and bones. I can’t stand the sight of myself.”
“You’ve always said you wanted to outlive me. What’s happened?”
“I don’t want to outlive you. And I don’t want you to outlive me. I want us to die together. I can’t think of a better solution.”
Emily just shakes her head. “You’re such a baby. Look at my legs.” She pushes down the comforter, revealing woefully swollen ankles. “Congestive heart failure is way worse than a little emphysema,” she says.
Hanratty cannot stop thinking about his idea. Every time he takes his daily Atenelol, he looks at the tiny pills and thinks with admiration of their lethalness. He imagines slipping a handful into Emily’s morning bowl of raisin bran, then, as they take effect, swallowing a handful himself. But he does not want to trick her. What excites him most about the idea is that he sees it as an act of rebellion, a couple deciding to flout convention together.
Several weeks later, as he putters about the kitchen making decaf, waiting for Emily to get up, she calls to him from the bedroom. Her voice sounds panicked. She cannot get out of bed.
By the time Hanratty reaches her, she has thrown off the covers. Her normally swollen ankles now look thrice their usual size. Hanratty dials 911. An ambulance whisks them down to the Mayo Clinic.
It is, as Emily, a nurse for well over sixty years, suspects, yet another episode of congestive heart failure – this one far worse than the last. The emergency room physician gives her a diuretic and checks her into the hospital. Hanratty insists on sleeping on a cot in her room. The staff has to set up oxygen for him.
Emily begs him to go back to the house so he can sleep in his own bed. Hanratty refuses. “I can no longer spend a night without you,” he says.
The next morning, Emily’s cardiologist of the past several years stops by. He examines her, but not with his usual upbeat chatter about the astonishing youthfulness of her face and figure. When he is finished listening to her heart from every possible angle, he pulls up a chair. “I am going to send you home, Emily, but, frankly, I’m afraid you could be back here this afternoon or tomorrow or the next day. Your heartbeat is very weak right now.” He turns to look at Tim. “You cannot leave her alone, not even for half an hour. Is that clear?”
On the way back in the town car, Hanratty reaches over and takes his wife’s hand. She has been staring out the window, shivering. “Turn down the air conditioner,” he tells the driver. “It’s freezing back here.”
“I’m sorry, sir, the air conditioner isn’t on.”
“Then turn on the fucking heat.”
Putting Emily into the wheelchair loaned to them by the hospital, the driver helps them into the house,. Hanratty tips the man forty dollars and asks for his card.
Hanratty hobbles around the kitchen, making them a cup of tea. He wants to bring up his idea, but thinks it would be cruel right now. He simply says, “Don’t leave me, Em. After all this time, I cannot possibly live without you.”
“You don’t want to fuck other girls?”
“Nope.”
“You never fucked anyone besides me, have you?”
Hanratty has never admitted this to her before, although he is certain that somewhere along the line she has intuited it. “Nope. You’re the only one.”
“I fucked other guys, you know.”
“I know.”
“But not as many as you think.”
“It’s okay, even if it was a hundred. I couldn’t have wished for a better wife than you.”
“I never fucked anyone after the night we met.”
“It’d be okay, even if you had.” Hanratty realizes she is in the process of giving in to him. He is being as accommodating and gentle as he is able, not wanting to startle or anger her.

The same driver who took them home from the hospital is waiting in the driveway. Once again he pushes Emily in the wheelchair, this time back out to the town car. Hanratty helps him lift his wife onto the back seat. She is struggling for breath with far greater urgency than Hanratty ever has.
“I want you to take us down to the little park in front of the capital,” says Hanratty from the back seat, then asks the driver to close the glass partition separating the back from the front. He takes out one of his pebbled notebooks. “I’m going to leave this on our laps,” he says. Emily simply nods. She seems too exhausted to speak.
Hanratty is in a manic state. This mission seems glamorous, sexy, romantic. The whole idea of his and Emily’s hurling themselves into the unknown, like Thelma and Louise, like Bonnie and Clyde, is the antithesis of his heretofore obsessively careful life.
He squeezes his best girl’s hand, his love for her at this moment monumental, grandiose, the stuff of operas, of rock songs. Brenda and Eddie, Jack and Diane.
“I want to read you what I’ve written,” he says. Emily is not looking at him, her gaze lost somewhere out the front windshield. Hanratty takes hold of her hand. “Listen, this is what they’re going to read when they find us: ‘To Whom It May Concern: We, Emily and Timothy Hanratty, being of sound mind and body, have this day of April 19, the year 2012, at approximately 10:30 a.m., sitting on a park bench in front of the capital of our great state of Arizona, each taken five hundred milligrams of Atenelol with the express purpose of ending our lives. In the remote case that we are discovered before we have died do not under any circumstances try to revive us. We are both well over eighty-five and desperately ill. We have chosen to end our lives as an act of our own free will. Please respect our wishes. Signed Emily and Timothy Hanratty.’ I’ve taken the liberty of forging your signature. I figure if they find out it’ll be a little too late to put me in jail.” He chuckles at his joke and closes the notebook.
From a Whole Foods shopping bag, he holds up a bottle of Evian and a bottle of Dr. Brown’s cream soda. “You’ll wash ‘em down with water, I with my favorite drink in the whole world. It’s so great not having to worry about my sugar count anymore.”
Her face wan and mournful, Emily forces an exhausted little smile. “I can’t tell you how excited I am by this, Em, I really can’t. It’s an existential act. Everyone else just hangs on by their fingernails, hoping the inevitable won’t take place.” Hanratty is speaking rapidly, like someone who has drunk too much coffee. “They suffer horrifically, experiencing the basest degradation of life. But, we, we have chosen not to passively sit by and let life grind to a halt. No, we’re beating death to the punch. We’re robbing death of its sting.”
Normally, Hanratty would be panting for air from such exertion, such consumption of breath. But a massive surge of adrenalin has, temporarily at least, energized his entire being. For years now he has wondered what it would feel like to slam into a tree at one hundred miles per hours, to crash into the pavement from the twenty-fifth floor, to march headlong into a hail of bullets. The sudden impact. The instant of contact. Now he will know. His own bravery has infused him with a sense of omnipotence. He is in the best of moods, reminiscent of the time he had, against his boss’ wishes, taken a full month off from work. He and Emily got on the plane to Milan to spend all of June bicycling through Tuscany, and his sense of unfettered freedom, of thirty uninterrupted days of good food and wine, sex and sunshine, gave him a sense that from then on he would be living life with all the joyous gusto with which it was meant to be lived.
He squeezes Emily’s hand ever so gently with the pulse of love and tenderness he is feeling for her. She does not, as she usually does, squeeze back. Her hand feels strangely inert, like a bean bag. He turns to look at her and discovers that her eyes are staring straight ahead, unblinking, unseeing.
The town car pulls to the curb opposite the capital building. Hanratty would have preferred Washington, but given the circumstances Phoenix will have to do. He, they, are making a statement.
The driver gets the wheelchair out of the trunk and comes around to Emily’s side of the car and opens the door. Hanratty has positioned his wife so that her head lies back against the seat. He has pulled down her lids till her eyes are shut.
“She’s fallen asleep,” he says to the driver. “She’s narcoleptic. It’s like she’s in a trance.” Hanratty climbs in front of her and out onto the sidewalk. The driver pulls Emily toward him, and she immediately slumps forward, her head falling against her knees.
The driver turns to Hanratty. “Oh, my God, is she okay!”
“Don’t worry, she gets like this all the time. Narcolepsy is an amazing disease. You look like you’re dead. Just put her in the wheelchair.”
The driver lifts Emily out of the backseat and places her in the wheelchair. She falls forward till once again her head is on her lap. “I don’t know, Mister,” says the driver, “she seems really, really sick. I’m going to call an ambulance.”
Hanratty hands him a one hundred dollar bill. “I’m telling you, she’ll be fine. Just help me wheel her over to the bench.”
The driver pushes the wheelchair next to one of the park benches facing the capital. “Pick us up in an hour and a half,” says Hanratty. “We’re just going to sit here and take in the view.”
When the car pulls away, Hanratty stands behind the wheelchair and, summoning all his will and strength, pulls Emily by the shoulders till she more or less is sitting up. He ties his scarf across her chest and around the back of the chair. Her head slumps forward, but the scarf holds her sitting upright.
Hanratty sits down on the bench next to her. The sun is out, and it is another typical Arizona spring day, virtually no humidity nor clouds, a light, dry breeze coming from the northwest. Hanratty takes the vial of Atenelol out of his pocket and empties several dozen of the little pills into the palm of his hand. He imagines their power as they spread out into his blood stream and begin to take their effect upon his large, strong, jogger’s heart. They won’t destroy it as, say, a staph infection would. They will simply stifle its impulse to beat.
He uncaps the Dr. Brown’s soda and opens his mouth, but realizes he isn’t quite ready to swallow the pills. He wants, for just a few more minutes, to savor his act of rebellion. He only wishes he could somehow see the news reports of it. He looks around the capital grounds across the street, wishing there were pedestrians, lawmakers, tourists in the area. But this Tuesday morning there is hardly anyone around. The capital looks particularly disinterested.
Suddenly, a wave of futility passes over Hanratty. Two decrepit old pensioners have offed themselves to make a statement. Who gives a shit. He glances over at Emily, stiffening now in her wheelchair, her profile to him, disinterested, gone. Suddenly, taking the pills without her doing the same seems anticlimactic, lonely, stupid. The day has lost all its glamour, its purpose, its unlimited sense of possibility.
He reaches over and takes Emily’s hand, holding it against his cheek.
“I’m sorry, baby, I can’t do it. I’m just a big chicken, after all.” He begins
to weep, quietly, softly. He hasn’t enough breath to do anything more.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” he whispers. “I’m not far behind.”

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