Henry loaned me a book he’d just finished reading. A paperback. We talk books when we see one another. We read a lot. We play tennis together. On the change-overs between games we talk. Mostly about books.
We wore masks for a while, standing apart, on our side yards for a few weeks, back when the days were still cool and the grass was just greening up. When masks were recommended. Then, as time went on, and they opened the tennis courts, we agreed to stop wearing them when we got together.
Henry is a mensch. Trustworthy.
When I walk past his house in the afternoons, I can see him through his screen door, on his couch, a book in his hands, a light through the window, his COVID-long white hair troubled by the breeze from a ceiling fan.
In the book he loaned me, there’s a conversation he’d underlined in pencil. Humphrey, an old man, maybe eighty or so, and a much younger woman, Tooly are talking. She calls him Humph. He never calls her by her name.
Humph has a disdain for fiction. Made-up stories. He tells Tooly she reads too many of them. “Life is not like that,” he tells her. “You believe things end in beauty. You think loose strings tie up.”
In life, he says, “there is no hero.” No plot to follow. There is only living, consciousness, and then oblivion. Neither more nor less. “Nothing means anything,”
“Nothing?” Tooly says.
“Nothing. Be afraid of people who say there is meaning from life. Meaning only comes when there is an ending.”
“I don’t agree with that,” she tells him.
I copied down the underlined words. I wanted to remember to talk with Henry about them.
When we play tennis, we sometimes talk about death. Maybe more than sometimes. We keep it light, but still…how could you not talk about death when the days now are numbered and ranked by case counts and bar charts, and bodies in refrigerator trucks by hospital doors?
Death is the subtext, if not the context.
It is hot. Heat lifts from the court like a ghost. We drink. Wipe our necks and foreheads.
“I read what you underlined,” I say, and wait.
“The oblivion part really scares me. Annihilation,” Henry says.
“Me too. But what’s the alternative?”
“What can that possibly be? I mean in any real sense? At some point it all ends, Henry.”
“Don’t you want to know how it all turns out?”
“It might be nice. But I already know. You do too. Not well,” I tell him. “The Earth gets engulfed by the sun. It all vaporizes. Finito.”
“But don’t you think that before that, things will get better? We’ll all get smarter. Figure the living together thing out. Get it right? Don’t you want to be there for that part?”
“Like we get to the end of this book we’re living in and there’s a neat conclusion of all the highlights and some of the low ones and all the subplots get wrapped up, like with Harry Burns and Sally Albright on New Year’s Eve? You ever think about why they ended the movie in that last scene?”
“Because no one wants to see the real ending. Nobody. They’d walk out of the theater going ‘What the hell does that all mean?’”
“Burns and Albright?” says Henry.
“Burns and Albright. That’s wild. Harry burns, the nihilist, and Sally the all-bright optimist.”
“Clever, but way off the point.”
“The point being what?”
“Mortality, Henry. The meaning of living. Knowing that it is going to end. That’s the point of every story. Even Harry Burns knows that. He reads the last page of every book first so he knows how it ends in case he dies before he finishes it.”
“Not every story. Think about Frodo!”
“What about Frodo?”
“Didn’t he go to the Undying-Lands of Valinor. A mortal who became immortal? Isn’t that the one great Hobbit hope in the One Ring? The one great hope for all of us?”
“Frodo and Bilbo go there, but they don’t become immortal.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Tolkien himself said that they stay in Aman for a while in a pleasant purgatory as a temporary gift but, in the end, they are mortals living there in peace and healing for a while but ultimately, they weary and die of their own free will and leave the world. They cannot escape mortality. Death is the gift to men.”
Henry leans against the fence. “What about Fosca then? Beauvoir made him immortal.”
“Fosca is a great example of the absurdity of immortality. She made him immortal and what happened. He sees his friends and family die. He loses everyone he ever loved. He lived to see every victory he had hoped to see become a defeat. In All Men are Mortal he was the loneliest, most world-weary of men, and couldn’t die. Beauvoir believed in living each day with the reality of death.”
“But still, wouldn’t you want to see what it would be like?”
“No. And, Henry, neither would you. I don’t think anyone wants real immortality. They want heaven. They want disembodiment. The preservation of relationships. Not just hoping to live only in someone else’s memory, because even that, their lasting memory in the minds of others, dies out after a few generations.
“Then promise me,” Henry says to me, “that if the day comes when either of us gets really old and frail, after our first serve is long gone, and before we have to eat applesauce and cottage cheese sandwiches for dinner, and need someone to trim our nose hairs, and feel like the world and our existence in it are burdens, we’ll help the other one find a way out.”
“Yes. That’s the way I want to go, Henry. That’s the way.”
The sun is high. We play a few more games. The season is short. The days will get short too, and colder. The nets will come down and the gate will get locked.
When we stop, we wipe the sweat off our faces as best we can with our damp towels. We pack up our racquets and we walk across the dried-out grassy field to the car.