From Vol. 9: “80,” a short story by Stephen Dixon

He wakes up, gets his cellphone off the night table and opens it to look at the time. 3:02. He’s been asleep for less than an hour. An hour ago he checked the time after lying in bed awake for almost three hours. 2:05. So he’s gotten an hour’s sleep tonight. He’ll probably lie in bed for another hour or two before he dozes off. He tries every position to get back to sleep. On his back, on one side, then the other side, on his back again, legs stretched out, legs pulled in. Exercise. Maybe that’ll help.

He gets out of bed, turns the nightlight on in the bathroom, grabs the two weights off the dresser and exercises with them. Thirty of this, twenty of that. Fifty of another exercise. Then ten with one weight and ten with the other in the other hand. Then other exercises with the weights. He starts to sweat. Sits on the edge of the bed, looks behind him to make sure the cat’s not on the bed so he doesn’t hit him with the weights, and does more exercises. Then puts the weights back on the dresser, one crossed over the other so they don’t roll off, and goes into the bathroom. Might as well brush his teeth while he’s in here. But what did he come in here for? Forgets, forgets, and not because he’s sleepy. He’s not sleepy. No yawns. No eyes closing when he has no control of them to. Nothing like that. Thought the exercising would make him sleepy. Has before and maybe still will. Not to pee. Already did that when he got out of bed before last time he fell asleep, and it’d be a waste of time to sit on the toilet now to try to. Or is it’d just be drops. Dribble and drops. And more drops on his leg when he stands up. To wash his underarms with a towel. He does that. Just with water. Would have liked to do it with warm water. But it takes a while for the water to run warm in this back bedroom of the house. And he’s on a well and he hates wasting so much water, so almost never does. Dries his underarms with the same towel and then straightens out the towel back on the rack. Should probably brush his teeth. Does it now, won’t have to do it later in the morning when he gets up for good. Brushes his teeth. Gets the hairbrush off the cabinet shelf above the toilet and brushes his hair twenty strokes, though he’ll have to brush it again later when he gets up for good, what hair he has left. He’d love to have a full head of hair. Even half a full head. Just enough in front so he could comb it in a way where it wouldn’t look like he’s that bald, but where it’s not obvious that’s why he combed it that way. It’d make him look younger by about ten years, even though it’d be gray to white like the hair he has now. Would like to be slimmer too. He has a pot. Has had them before but never one the size of the pot he has now, that he can remember. He’s almost sure of it. His wife or one of the women he knew before her would have said something about it. Jokingly, not sarcastically. Eventually things like that come out. Same goes for something a little imperfect that he’d mention. He’s been eating too much the last year or so. Maybe even longer. Stuffing himself. Out of some kind of nervousness, or something bothering him. For instance, a story he’s writing not going well—he’s stuck in a certain part, can’t think of a way to get out of it—he leaves his desk and goes to the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Or he has nothing to do, nobody to talk with, is bored for some reason—those aren’t the best examples but something like them—the refrigerator. Just to look inside and see what he has in there. Half the time he comes out with nothing. Or maybe a carrot. But too many times he gets, for instance, a slice of bread, slaps a slice of cheese on it and maybe a slice of processed turkey if he has any in the deli bin—cheese he always has—and maybe some lettuce and sometimes mustard and folds the bread in two and eats this rolled-up sandwich standing up in the kitchen, though sometimes when he does this he spits out into the trash can there most to all of what he has in his mouth without even starting to chew it, and throws away the rest of the sandwich with it. Maybe does this one time out of four. That sounds right. He also makes himself almost every night too big a meal for dinner and always eats all of it while he reads at the dining table. He should cut down. Eat less food and cut out all the bread and pastry and rice and pasta. Or at breakfast one slice of toast or half a toasted bagel and that’s it with the heavy stuff for the day. He loves his bread and pasta and so on but in the end he’ll feel better without most of it. And he should jog more than he does, and farer, longer. He should work out at home and in the Y more than he does. But he’s 80. And he goes to the Y every day, if the roads aren’t icy, so what more does he expect of himself? And he’s not fat; he’s just got a pot. And what would a slimmer build and potless stomach and full head of hair, or half a full head or just enough in front to conceal most of his baldness, again if he could pull it off without it being obvious that’s what he’s doing, and looking ten years younger, if that was possible, do for him? Would it make him more attractive to women? That’s what he’s after, isn’t it, and everything that could go along with it and maybe one who’s fifteen to twenty years younger than him? But he still has a face and neck, no matter what he does to the rest of his body—forget the hair—and they could be his giveaway.

He goes into the bathroom, turns on the regular lights on opposite sides of the medicine cabinet and turns off the nightlight—not so much to save electricity but that too—and looks at himself in the mirror. His neck is stringy. Nothing he can do about that. Been like that for a few years and seems to be getting worse. Now the parallel strings, or ropes, almost, go from below his larynx right up to his chin. And his face? It looks old. He needs a shave, which makes him look older, but that could be fixed in a few minutes. Gets closer to the mirror, around six inches away. Now really look at your ugly face. All right: just your face. Don’t make it all seem worse than it is. Looks hard at his mirror face. Yeah, he’s old. He looks old. He looks like his father did a year or so before he died at 75 or 76. Born in August, died in May. ’95 to ’72. 76. With an old face and neck, chances are slim he’ll meet a woman to get close to of any age. And fifteen to twenty years younger? Don’t be crazy. Anyway, he doesn’t meet new women. Not at the Y, where he’d think there’d be his best chance to; not at the markets. Not at the dinners a couple of friends—actually just one couple—invite him to two to three times a year. Passover. Thanksgiving, when his daughter comes down from New York and goes with him and does all the driving at night. And the Passover dinner? Drives to it when it’s still light out and goes very carefully driving back when it’s dark. Besides all that, what women would risk getting involved with him, or just close? He could get sick and need to be taken care of and then on his last leg. So what’s he going to do? What he’s been doing the last few years, though the chances of anything good happening with him get slimmer every year. He just has to plug on with only the barest of hopes of meeting a new woman to like and possibly love and kiss and hug and hold and sleep with. He can do it. He does it to himself in bed about once a month when he’s having trouble getting back to sleep and thinks it’ll help—he forgets if it does. And about twice a month or a little more, he’d say, just for the enjoyment of it, so it’s not as if that’s over for him yet. And when he does it—and sure, it takes longer than it usually did, but so what, where’s he going—the thrills are just as good as they’ve always been. Meantime, he does what he’s always doing and has done for almost sixty years is it? 22:80. Right. And that’s start a new story, or work on one of the unfinished ones till it’s finished, and on and on like that so he always has something to do and go back to every morning. If that ever stops he doesn’t know what he’d do with his time other than go to the Y, shop for food, nap a lot, read, have lunch with a friend about once every six weeks and at night watch a movie his daughter arranged for him to get through her streaming service, if that’s what it’s called, on his wife’s old computer. In other words…no, no other words. He’s in the bathroom. He’ll have to shave, or want to, sometime today if he’s going to go out—and what day doesn’t he, if the roads permit it, drive to some place or two?—so might as well do it now. And maybe exercise some more with the weights. At this hour that usually makes him a little sleepy. Otherwise he could be up and alert and his mind going for the rest of the night. Do himself off instead or in addition? He doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t think he will. And he did it just two or three nights ago, so it might take longer and more effort than it does when he spaces them out by about a week. Pills would put him to sleep if he had them, but he doesn’t want to rely on them so never got the prescription filled. Also the irrational feeling perhaps that with him some days it might be like having a loaded gun in the house. Nighttime cold and flu medicine would help, which he has, but often no matter which kind he buys—tablet, liquid and softgel—makes his peeing painful.

He exercises. Same ones as before. Ten, twenty, fifteen, fifty, and so on, till he can hardly lift his arms holding the weights. He pees sitting on the toilet. Easy down, easy up, with the grab bar. Then thinks something else feels like it’s about to come, which would stop his stomach from aching a little and make him more comfortable and possibly help get him back to sleep, but nothing comes but noise. The nighttime cold and flu medicine then. He goes into the kitchen. The cat jumps off the easy chair in the living room when he passes through it and follows him into the kitchen. “You hungry? Well, it’s too early. Later. A couple of hours from now, when it starts getting light out and I can also let you outside after.” The cat scratches the shopping bag of recyclable paper on the floor, which he does sometimes when he wants to be fed or doesn’t like what he put on his plate, sometimes scratching so hard that he tears through the bag. “All right, all right, I’ll give you something. But you have to promise not to throw it up.” He gets the can of opened cat food out of the refrigerator, washes the cat’s plate, spoons a spoonful of the food onto it and sets the plate back on the floor. The cat immediately starts eating it. He changes the cat’s water so he won’t have to do it later in the morning. Does it twice a day. Does he have to? Once should be enough, but it can’t hurt the cat by doing it twice. Fresher water. Has to be better for him. Gets the medicine out of the cabinet above the stove, drinks a capful of it and thinks maybe he should have two. That’ll really get him to sleep and keep him there. No, his penis. The pain.

He drinks half a glass of water. Someone—his wife?—once told him to after taking this kind of medicine, though he forgets what good it was supposed to do, and goes back to his bedroom in the dark. He shouldn’t. And shouldn’t have walked to the kitchen in the dark. He could have turned the light on in the living room. There are light switches on both ends of it. He’s warned himself several times. He could trip. And if he’s just wearing socks, slip, though that has less to do with the dark. Break a hip at his age and that will be the start of the end of him. Fall over the cat or bang into the piano or a piece of furniture, especially the coffee table, which is almost in the middle of the room. He’s done it at least twice the past year but didn’t fall, just hurt his shin and the other time his big toe. But does it anyway. Some kind of test. That he’s so familiar with the house after twenty-three years…twenty-four. They moved in in ’93—and just about all the furniture in the same places they put them in when they first moved here, that he can make his way through all the rooms in the dark. The cat leads him. He can barely see him on the floor. He gets to the bedroom, enough light there from the bathroom nightlight, looks in the mirror and points to it—“Old man. Old. Old.—and shuts off the nightlight and gets in bed. The cat jumps onto the bed. “Tell me, Dewey,” pulling the covers up to his chest, “am I ugly to you? Be honest. I can take it. Ugly and old? Way past anything? Come on, out with it.” The cat lies down at the foot of the bed, resting his head on top of his feet through the covers. “It’s all right. You don’t have to answer. It isn’t one of the requirements for staying where you are. I like your head on my feet. Feels good. But do I also act like a dotty old man too? You know: head a little fuzzy. Brain’s going. Talking to a cat like this? But you know what I really want? I’m sure you’ve already guessed. A woman in my bed. Doesn’t have to be young. Someone to hold from behind and kiss goodnight. To embrace, that word embrace, and to also try to screw from behind. Now I’m really sounding dotty, but it’s been so long. If I were to say eight years and a few days, would you believe me? But I forget: you weren’t even born yet. And for her to feel for me from behind. For her hand to crawl like a crab on the sheet till it feels some part of me to touch. Or to turn around in bed and hold me and give me a long lubbering, not ‘lubbering’ but some other soft el word, kiss goodnight. Or maybe to pull my penis till it’s stiff or gets close to it. To kiss it, if she wants to move down to it for a minute, and then my lips. For me to talk with her a little about whatever we talk about before we peel off to sleep. All that would be so nice. But it ain’t going to happen, know what I mean?” The cat stands up, seems to arch his back and then straightens it out, turns around and settles down again against his feet. “Goodnight, my friend. And don’t start washing yourself, for cryin’ out loud. I can’t stand the sound. That as much as anything will keep me from sleep. You do and don’t stop when I ask you to, I’ll have to push you off the bed. And if you still do it on the floor, banish you from the room and shut the door. But then you’ll just scratch it till I let you back inside. I know you. So please.” He gets on his side, careful to move his feet so the cat stays on them, and shuts his eyes. “I’m going,” he thinks, “I’m going.”

Stephen Dixon was the author of 18 novels and 17 collections of short stories. He published his first story in The Paris Review in 1963, received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and his short stories were featured in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Pushcart Prize Stories. His novel Frog (1991) was nominated for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His novel Interstate (1995) was also nominated for the National Book Award. His last two collections of short stories—Dear Abigail and Writing, Written—were published in 2019. “80” was the last story Dixon published before he died at 83.

Image: elements.envato.com

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