Some Company

Just before oncoming city buses pass on Indian Hill there’s a moment when it’s unclear whether or not the drivers will wave to each other. It lasts for about two seconds. When they do wave, the moment is neatly resolved, allowed to vaporize. When they don’t, it lingers like a failed sneeze and expands into an omen, a placeholder for everything dreaded, all the things that could end badly and do. In the back of my mom’s Skylark I used to signal to semi-truck drivers on the highway, trying to get them to blow their air horns. I wanted influence, I wanted to be recognized by the biggest things on the road. I did this recently with my son in the car and when the truck driver answered with a long sustained honk, my son sunk low in his seat, mortified. He made me promise to never do it again. I promised I would try. My son tells me I say maybe too much. He’s eight years old, older than I was when I began to understand the subtle language of the road, the exonerating and implicating notes passed wordless from driver to driver to driver. 

          At a certain age you become unwelcome company to yourself, as the surprise of your diminishing portion begins to settle and nag, settle and nag. It’s Christmas morning but someone forgot to put the gifts under the tree. A woman with a Watchtower Bible knocks on the door and asks how I’m doing, and I want to answer her honestly. There’s got to be a word for how I’m doing, I tell her, but it’s probably a German word. Could you come in and speak some German? I’m positive I’ll know the word when I hear it.

          I dreamed last night that I was the second oldest man in the world. My sole living elder lay hooked to a wall of machines in Tokyo—doctors pumped food into one machine, channeled it through him, and extracted it from a different machine. Reporters visited to ask his secret to longevity and a machine printed a tongue of paper that said: Power Down. It sounded even better in Japanese. I had a hard time being the second oldest man in the world. No reporters interviewed me even though I was full of witty maxims about life. What’s the saddest sight in the world? they’d ask. Easy: the sight of a man pushing his own empty wheelchair. Or a woman. A man pushing an empty woman? they’d ask. A man pushing an empty anything.

          I’d outlasted wives, children, grandchildren, tortoises, trees, architectural movements, modes of transport, tribal customs. I’d even outlasted my own body. In the dream I found a utility knife, cut a slit from my neck to my navel, and scuttled free of my skin like a naked crab. Instead of a shell I was searching for a new body, which was fortunate because the world is filthy with new bodies. Go anywhere and what do you see? Bodies, new, unblemished, supple, vacant. I found a man who looked exactly like me, not me in the dream but me in real life: forty years old, slightly overfed, mouth ajar. Empty. I didn’t need some teenage body, all that bland sloppily coiled promise. I wasn’t greedy. I burrowed in through the man’s mouth like a scavenger animal, hotwired his forty-year-old body, walked in circles for a while to get the hang of it, then guided it home, a slightly cockeyed one-story with scabs of stucco in the window flowerboxes.

          I checked in on my son, my wife, washed my hands for a long time. That’s how the dream ended, with my hands under the faucet, staring out the kitchen window. I woke up feeling strangely giddy. I still do. Just now I looked up the oldest man in the world: he claims he’s one-hundred and twenty-seven years old  but he lost his birth certificate. Reporters asked him the secret to longevity and he said it’s no secret: it’s hogshead cheese. 

KEVIN MOFFETT is the author of two story collections and a collaborative novel, as well as Sandra, a fiction podcast produced by Gimlet Media. His stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Believer, The Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. He has received the National Magazine Award, the Nelson Algren Award, the Pushcart Prize and a literature fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. He teaches at Claremont McKenna College and in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa.