He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man, and he was tall, and he was pacing. Not much space for it in the new home, just a few rooms lined up in a row, underneath a series of slow-moving ceiling fans, an array of antique clocks ticking on one wall. He made it from one end of the apartment to the other in no time at all—his speed a failure as much as it was a success—then it was back to the beginning, flipping on his heel, grinding himself against the floor, the earth, this world.
The pacing came after the cigar and the Scotch. Both had been unsatisfactory. The bottle of Scotch had been sitting too close to the window for months, and the afternoon sun had destroyed it, a fact he had only now just realized, the flavor of the Scotch so bitter he had to spit it out. And he had coughed his way through his cigar, the smoke tonight tickling his throat vindictively. All the things he loved to do, smoking, drinking, walking off his frustrations, those pleasures were gone. He’d been at the casino earlier, hanging with the young bucks. Trying to keep up with them. But even then, he’d blown through that pleasure fast. A thousand bucks gone, a visit to the bathroom stall. What was the point of it? He had so little left to give him joy, or the approximation of it. Release, that was always how he had thought of it. A release from the grip of life.
His wife, Barbra, sat on the couch, her posture tepid, shoulders loose, head slouched, no acknowledgment of his existence. But she glanced at him now as he paused in front of her, and then she dropped her head back down again. Her hair dyed black, chin limping slightly into her neck, but still, at sixty-eight years old, as petite and wide-eyed as ever. Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley. She flipped through an Architectural Digest. Those days are gone, sweetheart, he thought. Those objects are unavailable to you. Their lives had become a disgrace.
Now would have been an excellent time to admit he had been wrong all those years, to confess his missteps in full, to apologize for his actions. To whom? To her. To his children. To the rest of them. This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multicolored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he had landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of a bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and also would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints.
“The guy downstairs said something again,” she said. “About this.” She motioned to his legs. The pacing, they could hear it through the floor.
“I can walk in my own home,” he said.
“Sure,” she said. “Maybe don’t do it so late at night, though.”
He marched into their bedroom, stomping loudly, and plummeted headfirst onto their bed. Nobody loves me, he thought. Not that I care. He had believed, briefly, he could find love again, even now, as an old man, but he had been wrong. Loveless, fine, he thought. He closed his eyes and allowed himself one last series of thoughts: a beach, sand bleached an impenetrable white, a motionless blue sky, the sound of birds nearby, a thigh, his finger running along it. No one’s thigh in particular. Just whatever was available from a pool of bodies in his memory. His imaginary hand squeezed the imaginary thigh. It was meant to cause pain. He waited for his moment of arousal, but instead he began to gasp for air. His heart seized. Release me, he thought. But he couldn’t move, face-down in the pillow, a muffled noise. A freshly laundered scent. A field of lavender, the liquid cool color of the flower, interrupted by bright spasms of green. Release me. Those days are over.
Ninety minutes later an EMS worker named Corey responded to his last call of the day. The Garden District. A heart attack, seventy-three-year-old male. The patient’s wife let him and his partner in wordlessly, and then had leaned on the doorway to the bedroom, watching them work, until she finally deposited herself on the couch in the living room. Stone-cold ice queen. Her eyes bulging, frog-like. A row of creepy-ass clocks clicking above her head. So many diamonds on her hands and neck. He subconsciously stroked the two diamond studs in his right ear, one a gift from his ex-wife, the other for which he had saved scrupulously.
Before they left, patient in tow, Corey told her the name of the hospital where they’d be taking her husband. He could not get a verbal acknowledgment. She simply continued to stare. He waved a hand in front of her face. He was low on patience. He never got enough sleep. The last thing he needed was to have to take her in, too.
“Come on, lady,” he said.
Finally she let out a massive exhale and then began gasping for air. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear she’d been dying and had just come back to life. ●
Excerpted from All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg. Copyright © 2020 by Jami Attenberg. Published and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Jami Attenberg is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books of fiction, including The Middlesteins and All Grown Up. She has contributed essays to the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times, and Longreads, among other publications. She lives in New Orleans.