Feb 08, 2024, 06:24AM

In the Periodicals

Jules heads to the library, holding on to life for as long as he can.

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Reva had been busy interviewing in-home care candidates. After a week, she sent Jules an update on the process. Jules was clear that he didn’t want to interview people or long visits. He appreciated Reva taking care of the logistics. At last, Jules would have in-home visitors. Despite his initial reservations, Jules was trying to keep an open mind to this new semi-helpless stage of life. Throughout the last decade, he’d thought about staying active and aware. He didn’t want to become that old man, sitting in his chair, drooling and incoherent, just waiting to die.

It was harder to stay active and aware when you spent most of your days alone. After Violet’s death there were phases. First the grief. Then more grief. Next, the realization that he was still alive and must embrace the time he had left. A few years ago, he’d entered the “Now what?” stage. As his memory began fading, Jules found himself asking more questions to nobody in particular, and with nobody there to answer them.

Ako would visit every morning around 10 for an hour or so. Ruby would show up before dinner, from four o’clock. She’d help him with groceries and cooking dinner. Starting on Monday.

Jules stopped by the library. The intersection outside of the Santa Barbara public library was the spot where Violet was hit by the pickup truck, books in hand, as she stepped off the curb. The man driving that truck, speeding through a red light, killed her instantly.

During the months following, Jules avoided that area entirely. After attending grief therapy, he was persuaded to go back to the library, and find some sort of peace. Eventually, he developed a habit of conjuring Violet from that very corner of sidewalk. Jules now went every month or two. By remembering her in this ritual, he felt a glimmer of nostalgia for the love they shared. He sometimes imagined her cursing out all the reckless drivers from the spirit world.

Once inside the library, Jules strolled over to the side room off the lobby, with an urge to browse through the periodicals. For decades, he’d subscribed to Time, The New Yorker and The Nation, but Jules decided to cancel those when his eyes started getting worse, and when the pile of New Yorkers became too much to bear. Even retired people who loved words and ideas couldn’t keep up with the avalanche. These days he preferred reading on the tablet, where it was possible to increase the font size with a few adjustments.

After about an hour reading a lengthy profile of a Russian theater director who lived in exile, Jules’ back ached in the wooden chair. Meanwhile, his left leg had fallen asleep after he’d forgotten to re-cross. Jules rose with some difficulty. He tried to wake his dragging leg by tapping his shoe. Pins and needles were uncomfortable. He imagined actual needles sticking out of his leg, like that one time he’s tried acupuncture on his back.

He wandered over to the fiction section and found two recent collections of short stories that were on the “recommended” shelf. No science fiction today. No erotica. No horror stories. He gravitated toward stories about how humans manage to survive our time on the planet without losing our minds… or, in stories with unreliable narrators… while slowly losing our minds. He was more than willing to commit to this kind of tale for 20-to-30 pages over an hour or so. When he was younger and more ambitious he read novels. Now, a novel really had to compel him or he often tossed them aside after about 100 pages.

The older Jules became, the more hours there seemed to be in the day, but the fact remained—there were fewer days left in his life.

As Jules exited the library, he paused once again, absorbing the sounds and flashing images. All the cars and trucks. Bicyclists. Two young bearded men on Vespas. In another life, riding a Vespa had appealed to Jules, imagining himself coasting along a winding road in the French countryside. There was the city bus. A car alarm in the distance. Then he noticed a motley crew of adults exiting a van. They were each getting out of the van, with support from the younger Latino driver. A woman, maybe 30, with muscular dystrophy. A scruffy and disheveled man, probably late-40s, who seemed entirely suspicious of the world outside, refused to walk down the two steps to the curb. Two older women in wheelchairs, who needed the van’s adjustable ramp to exit. The driver helped each of them with patience. Jules took a moment and attempted to find a river of gratitude within him. His life, as filled with obstacles as it had often seemed, was also a charmed one. Here he was at 83, only now semi-helpless.

The traffic passed in endless waves of white noise. The sun glinted in all directions, occasionally blinding Jules. He reached into his pocket and removed his sunglasses, beginning the five-minute walk back to this car. How did so many people manage to stay alive with danger always lurking around the corner? Better not to think too much about it. Better to continue on, as if nothing catastrophic might ever happen, while we stumble around for our brief moments on this planet. 


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