issue thirty-one
art gallery
past issues
current issue
(1880 words)
Alyce Lomax
Shelf Life

Dick Bridges knew he had a shelf life.
"Dad, look, just call me when you need milk, I can go get it for you. I can go get your groceries. Anything you want. OK?"

Despite his daughter's best efforts to distract him, Dick definitely knew he had a shelf life. That's why he often took perverse pleasure in driving his 1981 Cadillac Seville to the grocery store just to pick up milk -- and nothing else. He didn't even use milk that much; he took his coffee black as could be. Sometimes he'd pour the milk down the drain when it was still perfectly good, so he could go out and complete that one minor task. It reminded him he was still alive, at least for now, alive and hoping to get through another quart of milk, for God's sake. He was reasonably sure he'd be able to outlive the pull date, and that wasn't something he could say about many things these days; canned goods kind of gave him the heebie jeebies, as if a death sentence hid in the fine print on every can of corn. As for that milk, though, he was only just reasonably sure; he was old enough to know that he could go at any given moment, no matter how spryly cantankerous he felt most of the time.

His daughter, Priscilla, really didn't understand, or at least she didn't want to try. She was more like her mother that way. And yet not like her mother at all.

It was clear to him Priscilla didn't understand how his trips out were informative, if depressing -- but maybe a better description was mindboggling. It wasn't just the way his car stood out from the new ones, his giant anachronism of a vehicle slowly lurching forth amongst the newfangled ones. It was also the way the roads were always being dug up, jack hammered, rejiggered, and re-routed, the way there was always some new shopping center or high-rise being built, or some shop peddling $5 coffee (sometimes he suspected they -- the invisible, all-powerful "they" -- were just trying to make everybody crazy). His mental map of the place he'd known all his life was becoming as useful as a map from 1642. In Latin.

But he figured that's information you've kind of got to know, so you can see how it's all slipping further and further from your point of reference, not to mention your sphere of being.
Priscilla always had a laundry list of things ready -- irritating, nagging, endlessly repeatable things which were part suggestions, part demands -- and he wondered which ones she'd pick for this particular telephone conversation.

Dad, why don't you get a new car?
Dad, you shouldn't live alone.

Dad, maybe you need a pet.


All those ideas, those changes, some of them implied maybe she thought he'd live forever, others that he was on death's doorstep. He wasn't sure why she didn't see he'd become a pro at not changing. A new car? It pained him to even ponder the uselessness of a powertrain warranty for a man who's 76 -- and how those car salesmen would try to sell one to him anyway. Even if he bucked the odds of survivability, maybe he'd go blind. Or senile. There was no reason to waste a brand-new sedan -- or the money for it -- for a year, maybe two, definitely not many. Besides, what the hell was wrong with his Caddy, anyway? An occasional backfire was his idea of the jollies these days. 

As for living alone, he'd gotten used to it. Fifteen years alone will do it to you.  Besides, Priscilla never asked him if he wanted to move in with her. And even if he did want to live with Priscilla and her smarmy salesman husband Paul, which he didn't, he could think of a litany of reasons why she had never even suggested it, how it all must have gone wrong years and years ago, although he couldn't pinpoint the exact moment. Maybe it was because he hadn't given her a pony when she was nine. Or maybe it was because he had presented her with a used Ford Pinto instead of coughing up a brand-new Jeep or a BMW like all the other kids had supposedly gotten for their sixteenth birthdays (all the kids who mattered, anyway). Or maybe it was how he had never liked Paul, not even at the start, when all of them were younger; Dick had only just started to tolerate him recently, having become too tired to harbor much active dislike anymore. (He only had the energy for the remote dislike reserved for, say, politicians.) Anyway, those weren't really things that Dick could change. Not now. Not that he would if he could, come to think of it. Maybe he could work on liking Paul a little more than that thin veneer of teeth-gritted toleration, but he didn't see the point since it wouldn't be genuine…  and damn, he was just way too old and set in his ways to become some kind of aging thespian. Besides, they'd probably lock him up somewhere, thinking he'd been taken with senile dementia. Sometimes change just makes you look crazy, but Dick knew it'll make you feel crazy, too.

"Dad, maybe you just need a change of scenery, I mean, you've just been doing the same thing all the time, for what, a decade? God more than a decade now, just sitting there in that stale house puttering around and watching TV and going to the grocery store when you don't even need anything. Dad, maybe you should take a trip. A cruise? Doesn't that sound nice?"
Dick wasn't sure why Priscilla didn't realize he'd seen plenty of change, and he didn't particularly like it. Like cell phones; people running around the grocery store supposedly talking on the phone, looking like they were batshit crazy talking to themselves. Dick would have been fine if innovation had come crashing to a halt after CD players and VCRs; he still resented the cruel fates that befell the 8-track tape and the Betamax.

Change! What about how he came from a generation when having the name "Dick" wasn't an embarrassment; damn kids today. ("Damn kids today" had been going on for thirty or forty years. Lots of those damn kids he'd referred to over the years had grown up during that time, and now surely had their own damn kids.) Fannie had also lived long enough to see her name turned into the butt of many a joke. Dick and Fannie. It infuriated Dick that anybody could take their names -- both their names! -- and commandeer them for potty humor. However, Fannie had laughed about it and decided people should call her Annie, joked that all it took was to drop the "f." Dick had scoffed at her. She was always Fannie to him, and sometimes when he felt like teasing her, he'd say, "Well, Fannie…"
What he wouldn't give to say, "Well, Fannie…" to her now. There were so many things he wished he'd said before she'd gone, things he also feared he still wouldn't say if she actually were still around. Existence is an endless excuse for lost opportunity; he'd realized that somewhere along the way. There's always tomorrow, right? No, there isn't. But who wants to think there isn't? He still didn't have any answers, and lived with the cloying suspicion he'd make all the same mistakes over again.

Funny, Fannie hadn't minded change, not so very much -- not like Dick had, and still did. A whole lot of good it did her, though. Rolling with the punches apparently isn't an adequate defense mechanism.

"Dad, really, they say pets add years to your life. Lower your blood pressure. A dog would make a nice companion. And you'd have more to do every day."

He'd already done the dog thing. He and Fannie had had Daisy. Daisy had been named DeeDee, but then Fannie changed her name to Annie and changed the dog's name, too. Fannie sure had loved that dog. That didn't do her much good either, though. That goddamn dog outlived her by a good ten years. Dick had to take Daisy/DeeDee to the vet more times than he went to the doctor. That dog had ended up on every med in the world, putting Dick's own collection of pills-of-the-day to shame. There towards the end, that dog did nothing but sleep 98% of the time. That dog… that poor dog… did better than Fannie, hung on tighter, clung on to life longer, something he wished he could believe had been more than just dumb instinct -- loyalty, maybe, or love. Fannie, on the other hand, had dropped in her tracks, a massive heart attack. He wasn't sure which end was actually more merciful, but for a long time, from his selfish standpoint, more time was the only thing he'd wished for. Now, years later, it wasn't so simple; everything he saw, everything he did and touched, seemed to have a doomsday timer if he searched hard enough for it. There was one thing that was simple though, if not sensible, and that was that he derived a great deal of uncomfortable comfort from an obsession with pull dates on dairy products.

"Priscilla, why the hell would I get a dog now? It's not right to get an animal and have it get used to you and then… then before you know it that dog doesn't have anybody to take care of it."

"Mom would… well, she'd give you a good swift kick in the pants or something if she heard you right now. It's so negative. Don't talk like that."

"Mom's not here. And dammit, it's the truth. I know I was always the planner and I know I was never any fun, but look, I don't want to think about some poor dog going to the pound because of me. Nobody deserves that, Pris, to go to some strange place with a lot of other lost, abandoned animals and wait for the end. Because who wants an old dog, Priscilla? Everybody wants the puppies. Nobody wants some old left-behind dog."

"Dad, I'd take the dog."

Goddamn pony. Goddamn Pinto. Goddamn Paul. Dick sighed, and realized he felt a little choked up just thinking about that poor mutt that didn't even exist -- but of course, it did exist somewhere, just not for him, just like a brand-new sedan also existed somewhere, for someone younger, someone with a hell of a lot more commutes and road trips ahead of them. "Sure you would."

"Dad, I don't know what you're getting at, except it's negative, and I'm thinking you need to do something that you actually enjoy. You know?" She paused for a second, and he could almost hear her searching the silence on the line, digging for whatever it was that would change everything. "Dad?"

"I've got to go, Priscilla. I've got a shelf life, you know." Dick hung up the telephone and seized his car keys from the bowl on a shelf by the front door, the same bowl that had held his car keys for forty years.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Alyce Lomax. All rights reserved.