Indestructible atoms

A man lives alone in northern New Hampshire. He is seventy years old. His second wife died two months ago. They had no children. A son from his first marriage died many years ago at the age of twenty-three.

Chest pains wake him at four in the morning. He sits up in bed and looks out the bedroom window. It’s a picture window with no blinds. Moonlight illuminates a grassy slope leading down to a river. He can hear the sound of the river through the open window. Beyond the river, a woodland of birds, quiet now, and beyond that, two tiers of mountain ranges fading into darkness. It begins to rain.

During the day he sits in front of the window and watches a variety of birds flying in and out of the trees down by the river. Squirrels venture close to the house. An athletically beautiful doe often crosses the river and approaches the house. Once he saw a fox run along the bank of the river. He loves living here.

The nearest neighbor is three miles away. The nearest hospital is fifteen miles away.

The pain in his chest is severe. Is this it? he says to himself. It occurs to him that he should at least have a dog or a cat.

He gets out of bed and goes into the living room—the irony of living room amuses him—and fills a shot glass with Jack Daniel’s. Down it goes. A biting shudder to be followed by a smoothing calm. He pours another shot and sits in an armchair and watches the rain. He’s not worried about his fate.

He misses his wife—she wasn’t a great conversationist and she drank and smoked too much but she was good company—and always, every day, he misses his son. His son would be forty-eight now. Hard to believe. Twenty-five years of life he didn’t have.

When he saw his son’s body in the coffin all those years ago he touched the young man’s chest. It was as hard and hollow as a barrel. This is not my son, he said to the funeral director. I don’t know where he is, but this is not him. The funeral director nodded politely.

The man talked to an Indian guru about his dead son. “Don’t worry about your son, man, your son’s all right.” The guru told the man he would see his son again. “Imagine both of you walking along together, totally happy, knowing and seeing all, and that walk will last five minutes or five thousand years.”

The man didn’t understand what the guru was saying but he would love to take that walk. In reality, though, he doesn’t suppose his son is anywhere. So what he wants to know is: How do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death—No, that’s not it, that’s e.e. cummings—what he wants to is, what happens to the billions of indestructible atoms that make up the human body and mind?—Indestructibility must count for something.To put it bluntly and simplistically, he wonders if, in fact, or even in fantasy, he will “see” (an ambiguous word for some kind of reunion or communication or sense of presence) his son again. His head and all the science say no, but his screaming heart says yes.

During these reflections his chest pains subside. Half the whiskey has gone and now he has a taste for coffee. It is five in the morning and the rain has stopped. If he sits up for another hour he will see the sun rise over the furthest mountain range and he will see the birds and the squirrels begin their day. Perhaps today he will see the fox again.


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