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As a Lonely Old Man


Joe Belknap Wall


ve lived alone for twenty-nine years, all in the same apartment, and I've spent the previous six months in my first genuine relationship in the last twenty years, which is further complicated by the fact that I'm involved with a man who's never been with another man and who comes with a four-year-old daughter in tow.

I have been spectacularly successful as a lonely old man, which is odd, considering I started this sojourn at twenty, way back in 1988, and is less depressing in some ways than you'd think. I have lived a contented, contained life with an order that is mostly my own, honing the crafts and skills that come easily when you're mostly free from distractions. I've had a dog in the house more or less continuously since 1995, with one four-month stretch of doglessness that proved to be intolerable and necessitated the installation of two dogs in place of the previous one. I read constantly, write even more constantly, go-go dance wildly in my apartment in headphones, and have learned to sit in a chair for long stretches in silence, looking out the window and not thinking about anything.

I am the building super for my small apartment house, so I fix things as they break in exchange for a gorgeously low rent in a place with a yard large enough for beekeeping in a nice little town where I couldn't afford to live at all if not for this special status, and I have a small woodshop and art studio space in the basement for when I need to make tangible things with my hands. I walk to the grocery store, the library, the post office, the meat market, the Amish market, and the huge thrift store where I buy all my clothes except for shoes and pants. My sister and my nieces live in my apartment building, as do both of the other two men I've dated, one from '86-'88 and the other, who is also now my landlord, who I was with in Alice-and-Sam-the-butcher-mode from '88-'97.

I work alone, running a small basement community theater in the county as a part-time job, and work as a handyman and jack-of-all-trades the rest of the time. I drove a Miata big enough to carry me and a dog for a few years, and now drive a pickup truck big enough to carry me and two dogs.

The last man I dated with any conviction, over a period of a bit less than a month, called my house "the monastery," though he meant it as a criticism and I took it as a compliment.

I do live in a monastery, in a life in service to a state of self-reliance and the slow practice of learning to write and to make music and to keep the world in fine mechanical fettle, but that's a life now at risk.

"Joebie," asked the four-year-old girl at my feet in an increasingly familiar other home, who'd fled the breakfast table where her father and I alternated cutting her pancakes for her and topping off her milk in order to get into a ridiculous red party dress, "Will please you come dance with me?"

I have to wonder if she can see from the bags under my eyes that I didn't sleep well the previous night, because one of the last of my adventurous friends, who was my willing companion in pursuit of mayhem and my copilot for long bouts of roadfarming, in which we'd point my beat-up old Saab Sonett in a cardinal direction and drive for hours with no destination, just watching the world unfurl around us, is at this moment lying in an ICU a continent away, stitched up like a football and completely failing to trip any of the electrical signals that would let us know that he's still in there. The little girl is small and perfect, just as pink and fresh as new buds on a tree, and is twirling like a Sufi mystic, pausing to clutch my hand and shake it, pestering me to dance.

"Honey, I need to get to work to argue with a bossy New York theater licensing agent," I said.

It's so easy to just go cold like this. This is how you learn to live with silence.

She put her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow.

"Why do you have to argue with a bossy New York...what did you say?"

"Licensing agent. Obligations, little darlin'," I said.

"What are obligations?"

And the thing is, I am forgetting. I have spent a week on the phone, or texting, or emailing, linking back into a loose network of friends scattered across the country to join hands around our mutual friend, who's lived much as I have, except on the road, always moving and settling, moving and settling, moving and settling, so that he was always somewhere new, or somewhere once-new, or somewhere familiar, but mostly on his own. Our friend in the nursing trade packed up, jumped in her car, and crossed three states to get to the hospital to be our contact on the ground. Things do not look good, and it's making me think.

Thing is—you can forget how to be a person, almost.

You get comfortable and get settled, and silence becomes your normal, even when you fill the gaps with aimless television and films and Twyla-Tharping around your apartment in your underpants to Sufjan Stevens while the dog huffs and goes back to sleep. You can forget that humanity and lose yourself in your head and in slow, mysterious projects that, on some level, make you wonder if they are meant to be posthumous memorials to what you were doing for all those years in the monastery. In time, you'll even forget what it means to be lonesome, because that's just the background radiation left from a vibrant, pulsating, thrilling universe that blew up a billion years ago, leaving you hanging in space, counting your way through the rites and rituals of sustaining your corpus against the transition to corpse.

Suddenly, something changes and you wake up, and it's almost too much.

My gentleman caller and his daughter and I climbed into my  pickup truck, we strapped her into the booster seat between us on the velour bench, picked out a cardinal direction, and set off. I was alive and terrified, unsure how I'm suddenly doing all these things at 48, so long after I'd already worked out my quiet plan for the rest of my existence. In a little town well west of Baltimore, we went from antique store to antique store, just looking, until we found a strange little "children's museum" which called to the little one like sirens singing on the rocks.

We paid five dollars each and ten for her and entered the day-glo maw of two germophobes' panickiest dreams and she ran wild, playing with all the kids also running wild in a hopped-up rendition of a daycare center.

"Joebie Joebie Joebie come play the fishing game with me and Daddy!"

"Joebie Joebie Joebie come sing with us!"

"Joebie Joebie Joebie you have to watch this play I'm doing with Daddy!"

I enjoyed the play immensely, despite being required, by an insistent little girl, to wear a too-small pair of clip-on teddy bear ears that I'm fairly certain were crawling with lice, bedbugs, scorpions, and as-yet-undiscovered influenza viruses. She played the wolf and her daddy and I were bears, a point that gave us both an attack of the smirks, and the end of the play came when she bought our baby(doll) and took it behind a pretend rock to eat it in private, which made her father ask me if that seemed unsettling and which made me grin like an idiot, proud as hell of a kid I'm just getting to know.

At some point, a jagged line of prismatic color started slowly crossing my vision, and I became convinced I was having a stroke triggered by all the screaming kids around me, but my young friend was having a ball, so I kept coloring with her after sneaking into the restroom to ask my contingent of Facebook friends if I was having a stroke.

The phone blipped and I subtly peeked at it, despite all the signs warning parents to focus on their children and not on their phones.

It sounds like an ocular migraine, read a message, and then another, and more. No pain—just a weird jagged line meandering across my field of vision for a while, then it was gone. My fear that I'd been freaked out by the concentration of children into a life-threatening situation was swiftly aborted by the incoming messages that point out that the sinus headache I'd been having is a standard trigger.

It makes me wonder, though. As I'm struggling to undo the social tics of a long life free of the complexity of new contact, I feel like the deeper into solitude you go, the more you adapt a defensive role into it, becoming better and better at accepting the silence and solitude until it's all you know. I was not unhappy, not by a long shot, and yet I've been feeling like I've been rescued somehow, and reminded that maybe that the last lines of Gatsby weren't meant to make it so easy to let everything go.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
After a long retreat of just letting my boat be borne, I—

"Joebie! How can I wave my arms like I don't care? I do care!"

My tiny dance partner is jitterbugging wildly on the rug while Lady Miss Kier is belting it out. I'm dancing, too, and I demonstrate exactly how one can wave their arms in the air like one just doesn't care. She pauses, folds her arms, and then duplicates my flailing almost perfectly. Her daddy, who's working from home this morning, joins us, and I am late for work and I'm dancing and it's all okay.

Somewhere, on the other side of the continent, a friend may be dying, even as a record he and I both adored back in our heyday plays in a place that just suddenly appeared in my life, and I'm dancing with a man and a kid when I should have been at work an hour ago, and it's all okay.

And every day, I have to put up with some new intrusion, some new force of change upsetting the ordered life that I led for so long, and it's just luck, really, that made it all happen.

I am, at this moment, alone in a small basement theater in a town just outside DC, where I've been vacuuming the lobby and cleaning the ticket printer and doing an inventory of cleaning supplies and candy bars in the concession stand and writing this long, winding reflection on things, and my dog is snoring at my feet and everything's about how it's been for a long, long time, except that every square inch of the wall around my desk is now plastered with crayon drawings from someone who won't stand for letting me just sit and stew in peace. I feel almost panicked, at times, at how little control I have over all this, and yet, here I am, and I think maybe this is better than just sitting.

I think maybe I've learned all there was to learn in the monastery.

"Joebie?" my little friend asks, as I'm struggling to put my shoes on and get out the door.

"Yes, hon?"

"Did Daddy kiss you in the kitchen while you were making us pancakes?"

"I believe he did."


"Because I was sad."

"I don't want you to be sad, Joebie," she says, and presents me with a new drawing for my wall.

Quiz question:

What kind of car does the protagonist drive?

A bike

A bike

A 2001 Chevy Malibu

A 2001 Chevy Malibu

A Miata

A Miata

A Ford Focus

A Ford Focus

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Issue 14


September 22, 2017

As a Lonely Old Man was written by Joe Belknap Wall, who spent his early career processing aircraft crash reports and monitoring cockpit voice recordings for accuracy, worked as an extra with the Washington Opera for twenty years, managed the toilets and go-go danced an annual blessing for the American Visionary Art Museum,ran a giant clock tower for five years, and now manages a small theater in Prince George county. He treasures his dingo, his scooter,and the collective of deranged friends and family who keep him stocked with new material.

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Issue 14

This writing was originally published in Opium Magazine, and is not listed in the archives.
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