The morning sun careened into Walter Friedman’s bedroom, lifting the gossamer curtains on gusts of light. His eyes opened from deep and measureless darkness, and for the first time that year he was surprised.
The previous night Walter had died. He was sure of that. There’s a moment just before death when the dying person knows he is dying. Walter had seen this moment long ago on the faces of wounded soldiers – an inevitable rushing away, like a wave being sucked back out to sea – and he was ready for it when it came for him. And then he was dead.
But now he didn’t feel dead at all, and he was so uncomfortable with the sun baking his windoward side and his mouth so malevolently dry that he immediately concluded that this was not Heaven. And Walter Friedman knew there were no beds in Hell.
He reached for the bell on his nightstand. It was the little half-dome kind that you find at cheap motels with ink-jet-printed signs that say “Ring For Service”. His wife had put the bell on his nightstand when she brought him home from the hospital, when it was clear that he wouldn’t leave his bed again, “for a while,” as she always said with a nostalgic smile that wasn’t completely devoid of hope. He rang it.
Debbie was there in what seemed like a second. “Good morning,” she smiled and lowered a glass with a bendy straw to Walter’s mouth. He drank gratefully and cleared his throat. “Morning.”
“You’re looking good this morning,” smiled Debbie, and the molecular spark of guarded hope in her eyes showed she meant it. She had seen Walter’s long decline; more than that, she had felt it, heard it, smelt the endgame that life plays eventually on us all.
And lately she had noticed day by day the deterioration of her husband’s person, like childhood in reverse sped up 10 times. But this morning, for the first time in at least a month, he looked better than the day before.
“I feel alright,” was his response. The wave that had rushed out the night before had rushed back in. It only left him on the same beach that he had been dying on, but that, at least, was something.
By the end of the day he was tired as usual and fell into an early and markedly untroubled sleep. The next morning he was a little better still. And again the morning after that. Debbie was beaming and her trays of soup and pills and water were brought with a buoyant mixture of deep relief and at least a little pride.
Walter recovered as quickly as he had declined. In fact, if either of them had given it a thought, they would have noticed that it was exactly as quickly as he had declined, to the day. His doctors were very pleased with themselves, though they admitted that his rebound was unexpected.
Within a month he was walking up and down the stairs again, and in two months he was driving to the store for milk. About a year from the night he had died he took Debbie dancing. Though he never told her about his death.
Four years after that he was bringing his wife soup and pills and water in the same bed he had laid in. For the first time in their lives, she looked older than he did. Then came the beautiful and misscheduled mid-morning when her wave rushed out to sea.
Without realizing it, Walter expected that she would come roaring back to life like he had, but she didn’t, and he buried her in a fit of guilt and loss and uninvited and shameful excitement. Excitement that he was getting stronger, freer, younger, that life might once again be stretched out before him, only this time, he knew its secrets.
Here are a few things that Walter Friedman learned during his exuberant second life, as he aged backwards until the eventual defertilization of his zygote:
– 60 feels very, very good compared to 80. Like, take walks in the breeze and stretch towards the sun sort of good.
– Serious employers stop considering you at about 52.
– Time is a stream that no will accept that you are swimming against.
– The early 40s are a sort of sweet spot, when men are accorded enough respect and generous assumptions to make them effortlessly attractive and trusted, especially if they know how to dress, and they are not yet old enough to negate their attractiveness for almost anyone.
– People do not take advice from people younger than they are. Ever.
– If you can make a person’s dream seem possible, that person will consider you the sun.
– From about 32-25, older people assume that you are worthless and younger people assume that you’re boring, unless, in either arena, you prove immediately otherwise.
– The early 20s are more than any of us have ever deserved.
– The teenage years do, in fact, turn you into an animal. Even if you see it coming, there is nothing you can do.
– The mind of a child is even more beautiful and exotic than you remember, and the enormous world is far scarier than you remember, too.
– Time speeds up as you get older, but if you are lucky enough to get younger it gets slower, and slower and slower, and in fact you never reach the end. Eternal life consists of the infinite splitting of the final fluorescent conscious second.