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Sunset
a story by Wim Hylen

Joe missed sitting on the stoop with Hoover and Lou in the old neighborhood, drinking Ballantines and watching the parade of humanity up and down Dekalb Street. They would chuckle at the packs of roaming teenage boys, their restlessness palpable, some of whom they could remember in diapers. He had grown nostalgic for the pleasant hum of voices from the streets mingled with distant music from apartments and passing cars. He also missed his former students at Adlai Stevenson High where he had taught history for twenty-eight years before his retirement last year. Even though most of them were going nowhere, their exuberance had made him feel young. The wrinkled faces that now surrounded him sent him to the mirror to examine the lines that crisscrossed his own at unpredictable angles.

It was Anne's idea to move west. She'd had it with the city. The crime, the long winters. A former real estate agent, she knew that property values were declining and the neighborhood sliding downhill. She wanted to be close to nature, to be surrounded by other "mature adults," her euphemism for those over sixty. Joe pointed out that there were plenty of mature adults in Queens, but Anne would not let the subject go. He brought up the possibility of moving to Florida. A few couples from the neighborhood had moved to Boca Raton, and their own son Alex lived in Atlanta. But Anne had her mind made up. She had subscribed to Arizona Highways for the past five years.

“Will you look at that sunset and those mountains, Joe,” Anne had said excitedly, pointing to a page in Arizona Highways while they were sitting in their cramped breakfast nook one frigid December morning. “You don't get that in Florida.”

"Twenty bucks a year to look at pictures of cactus and the blazing sun, they should call it 'Places No Human Should Live Monthly,'" he grumbled.

After much wrangling, they moved on a bitter day in March. Icicles hung from the porch roof, and a sharp wind blew down Ridgeway Avenue. They packed forty-three years of their lives into boxes. Although they both cherished order, neither Joe nor Anne had an affinity for cleaning. Joe thought some of the dust found in the closets must have been from the Kennedy administration. He packed each box with trepidation, convinced that some of his memories would not survive the trip. They drove cross-country in a U-Haul that had an elk emblazoned on its side and red lettering proclaiming: "Wyoming, Like No Place on Earth."

When they arrived, he had to admit it was beautiful. A claustrophobe, the open spaces made him feel secure. And the red and orange streaks of flame across the afternoon sky (although not quite Arizona Highways material) gave him peace. No trash on the sidewalk, either. Joe loved the warm days and cool, still nights. Sitting in their spare, cream-colored living room at night, he and Anne laughed at the sounds of coyotes howling in the distance.

Anne immersed herself in the life of an active retiree. She bought a set of golf clubs, a one hundred and fifty dollar tennis racket, and several tracksuits. Her long, lean physique made her a natural at just about any athletic endeavor. She joined the Leisure Land architectural committee and founded Leisure Landers for Social Action. Joe did his best to join in. He put aside his loathing of golf (“it's the new opiate of the people, Annie”) and joined her on the links and tennis court and attended several meetings of her clubs. Her enthusiasm for retirement provoked good cheer in Joe.

“Good morning sun devils,” Joe said one day at breakfast, pretending to be speaking over a PA system, “there will be shuffleboard at ten, badminton at noon and a seminar entitled 'Cut the Crap: A Breakthrough Approach to Adult Incontinence' at two in the Quetzalcoatl Room.”

The Landed Leisurers, as Joe came to refer to the other residents, were friendly and greeted Joe and Anne with enormous grins. The mere fact that they had chosen to reside in Leisure Land was apparently enough to initiate them into the club. Their neighbors' enthusiasm, especially for outdoor exercise, appeared boundless. Rackets, balls, and golf carts littered the driveways, as if the residents believed that in retirement they had earned the right to make a mess. What a contrast to Hoover and Lou, Joe thought, who, although fond of drinking and talking, disdained plans for self-improvement. They may not have been able to quote you chapter and verse, but his New York friends agreed that there was nothing new under the sun. The residents of Leisure Land seemed convinced that everything under the desert sun was fresh and exciting.

The most excited were their neighbors, the Swensons. Joe thought of them as geriatric versions of the captain of the football team and the head cheerleader. The sheen on May Swenson's died blond hair was eclipsed only by the brilliance of her permanent beauty-queen-on-a-float smile. Mitch Swenson was six-foot-four, wore his thick gray hair short, and was perpetually bronzed. Mitch loved to talk. Loudly. The Swensons were always playing host. Joe and Anne had attended several of their parties where they heard Mitch's insights on: crime ("more prisons, quicker executions"); the weather (he'd take a dry heat over humidity any day); women ("you need to tell them they look pretty at least once a week, even if they don't"); literature ("Dean Koontz over Stephen King, but it's a close call"); politics ("we need more 'stand up guys' in office"); religion ("the country started to go downhill the minute kids couldn't pray in school anymore"); and war ("we had it just as tough as the guys who went to 'Nam, but you don't see us living in the streets").

The Swensons' condo was a shrine to things military. Pistols, knives, helmets (Allied and Nazi), and spent shells lounged in glass cases, rested precariously on coffee tables, and hung from the ceiling giving the otherwise bright, airy space a medieval torture chamber feel. Joe pictured a twenty-year-old Mitch, same haircut and cocky determined slant to his mouth, sifting through the post-battle carnage for souvenirs. "Looky here," he might have yelled to his buddies as he held up a helmet he had just removed from a corpse, a proud, stupid grin overtaking his face, "not a scratch on it."

At one of the Swenson's soirees, the former teacher stood alone, feeling adrift, as the stereo cooed “Songs for Swinging Lovers.”

“Look alive, young man,” Mitch commanded from behind his built-in living room bar where he was mixing margaritas. Joe smiled wanly and slid up to the bar.

"My wife looks alive enough for both of us,” Joe said to his host, pointing to Anne on the opposite side of the room, gesticulating excitedly to other members of the architectural committee.

“She's a firecracker all right,” Mitch said.

“Speaking of explosives, what's with the war stuff?" Joe asked.

"When I was in the service, at first I just carried around a few things that caught my eye, like one of those special Nazi knives. Then I started thinking, hell, if I make it out of here alive, I should bring back as many souvenirs as I can find. So I started trading with my buddies. You know, if I had two helmets, I'd trade for a pistol, something like that."

"Interesting," Joe slurred, suddenly realizing that he had drank about six beers in less than two hours.

"I'm pretty proud of my youthful ingenuity,” Mitch said, his deeply lined face breaking out in a smile. "Did you serve?"

"Ninth Marines, Third Division. Iwo Jima, Guam."

"Well hell, you never told me that! Army. First Infantry Division. The Big Red One. Normandy."

Mitch wrapped Joe in a bear hug, picked him up and shook him gleefully in what was apparently a demonstration of old soldier solidarity. When he returned to earth, Joe smoothed his new linen Hawaiian print shirt and grinned awkwardly.

"Sometimes I think I should have joined the Army and not the Marines," Joe said.

"Really?” Mitch said, visibly excited. “You're probably the only jarhead I've ever heard say that."

"Yeah well, for one, I really didn't care for the Marine uniforms. Didn't like that shade of green. And then there was also the death and maiming. That got a little old after awhile. Or did you also have that in the Army?"

Joe anticipated a laugh, or at least a smile from Mitch, but he just stared, blank faced. Then he let out a small grunt.

"Ah, a joker,” Mitch said. “Seriously though pal, no one enjoyed it for Christ's sake, but it was our duty. And when you look back, even though some terrible things happened, all in all it was a rewarding experience. The guys I served with are the best friends I ever made. We get together every year even though we're spread out all across the country."

Joe noticed that a few partygoers had migrated toward the bar, apparently attracted by Mitch's unnaturally loud voice. Joe teetered slightly and put his glass down next to a photograph of a young Mitch in uniform. The onlookers excited him. He felt like he was standing before a history class on the first day of the school year. A surge of indignation swept over him suddenly, as if he had been the victim of some great unnameable injustice. He raised his voice to rival Mitch's.

"I made some good friends over there, too. But it was strange, most of them died. What are the odds? They weren't even sick when they got into the Marines. So when I see all this junk in your house, I wonder what was so goddamn great about that war that you want to remind yourself every day that you were there?"

Joe smiled lopsidedly, surprised at his outburst. As quickly as it had appeared, the feeling that had overtaken him retreated. As he watched Mitch walk purposefully from behind the bar, he noticed his resemblance to John Wayne. He approached, and Joe waited for the sounds of jingling spurs that never came.

"I'm sorry about your friends, Joe," he said firmly but not without sympathy, towering over Joe's compact, wiry frame, "but I don't like the tone you're using to talk to me in my own house, so I'm going to ask you to leave, pal."

He placed his hand on Joe's shoulder in a faux friendly gesture of warning. Anne, having taken notice of the situation, placed her hand on Joe's other shoulder.

"Come on Joe," she said softly, while casting an apologetic glance at Mitch.

Joe said nothing as Anne guided him out the door, past a photo of a young Mitch beaming while accepting an award for Pharmaceutical Salesman of the Quarter.

That had been in June. They had not been to a party at the Swensons' since. In fact, Joe had not been to any social events since what he had come to think of as his “performance.” Although he relished the role of iconoclast and secretly congratulated himself on taking Mitch down a peg, he was embarrassed, mostly for Anne, and regretted not making a better impression on Leisure Land society. He was mystified at his stupidity in getting involved in an argument that he had stopped having at the V.F.W. at least twenty years ago. He knew there was no convincing guys like Mitch who saw war as a bonding ritual, a prelude to annual reunions. Joe wasn't sure what had set him off that night, but he eventually put it down to feeling lonely and out of place, like a homesick kid at summer camp. To Anne's chagrin, he framed the photo Hoover sent of Lou passed out after the Saint Patrick's Day parade, wearing a leprechaun's hat. Joe was embarrassed by the wave of emotion that rose up when he realized that it was the first time in thirty years he had missed the parade.

Anne attended a few community functions after the Swenson party but soon got the hint that no one was too enthusiastic about socializing with the wife of an unpatriotic, bitter drunk. At first, it was the silent treatment for Joe. His observation that the chairman of the social action committee didn't seem to be getting much social action lately was met by a blank stare from Anne. One morning at breakfast, Joe noticed that her face was flushed. Oh, Christ, she's not going to cry, is she, Joe wondered.

"Damn it, are you going to talk about this thing, or what?" He winced at the sound of his voice, gravelly and hoarse, the voice of an old man. Anne slowly raised her head from the table, and Joe could see her red eyes and pained expression.

"Fine, let's talk," she said, "where should we start? Should we talk about how you never want to do anything interesting or anything I want? That one of the few times you grudgingly agree to go out with me, you make a fool of yourself by insulting our host? Would you like to discuss how we're now pariahs? I suppose that's fine with you. You would just as soon avoid our neighbors, anyway. They're not like Hoover and Lou. They actually want to do something with their lives after they retire, not just sit on the front stoop drinking beer and waiting to die."

It had always irked Joe that his wife's rare outbursts seemed so well rehearsed. No stuttering, always the perfect choice of language and image. He wondered how long she had been silently rehearsing that speech. But now was not the time to bring that up. Her sorrowful expression had turned to pure anger. Her eyelids fluttered wildly.

"Is your little performance what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life? Do you plan on becoming a social outcast in your golden years? If that's your ambition, fine, but don't ruin it for me."

Her voice trailed off. Joe reached out to touch her but withdrew his hand.

"I didn't mean to embarrass you," he said in a tone halfway between contrition and spite. "I just had too much that night. You know I usually don't get drunk. But that Mitch is such a blowhard. His condo of death is the least of it. Have you noticed the way he talks absurdly loud so no one is deprived of his inane opinions, which in case you missed it, include the belief that most black people are on welfare? The guy has no sense of humor either. And did you get a load of Mitch and his wife's matching tracksuits? Leisure Land doesn't need an architectural committee, it needs a sartorial committee."

“So what? He has the right not to be insulted for the way he chooses to decorate his house, doesn't he? I don't approve of everything he says, but I think he's fun. And at this point of my life, when I don't know how much time I have left on this earth, I could use a little fun, even if it's with people who don't share my exact view of the world. And to tell you the truth, I'm just so damn tired of your negativity." She spit out the last word with contempt.

"I'm negative because I don't like violence and racism? With that reasoning, Gandhi would be one of the most negative men ever."

"Oh, come on, spare me the Logic 101 lesson. I'm not one of you're brain dead freshman at Stevenson High. You know what I mean. You're going to claim with a straight face that you're not negative?"

"I think I can."

"Please. I've heard your conversations with your friends. Everything is screwed up, messed up, or fouled up and getting worse. You'd think that as a teacher you could use a little more imaginative language. But I guess that's what happens when you fraternize with a plumber and a truck driver for thirty years. And you have no hope for the future, no dreams. You would have stayed in that crumbling house until you died, complaining with those two."

"What you call complaining, I call conversation. And you're wrong; I do have hopes and dreams. My dream is that one day it will be less than a hundred degrees in this dusty hellhole. I'm not sure how realistic that is, though."

"That's exactly what I'm talking about,” Anne said, her voice rising, “sarcasm all the time. I know you'll never admit it, but maybe deep down you're jealous of Mitch. I think what you really don't like about Mitch is that he's full of life and happy here while you're miserable."

"Who said I'm miserable, and how do you know he's happy? Guys like Mitch are the ones they find swinging from the garage door, and everyone is surprised because they seemed so happy."

"Well, I've talked to him about it, and unless he's a fantastic liar, he is truly happy."

"Really, I didn't know you were so intimate with the King of the Landed Leisurers."

"You know I've spoken with him at their parties, and one time, I happened to see Mitch coming back from a round of golf. I invited him in, and we got to talking. You were out exploring, I guess."

"I see. How often has this gentleman caller, Mr. Fun, been paying visits to my wife in my absence?"

"I won't even justify that with an answer. If you don't have more faith in me than that…" She was too angry to finish. She sprung up from the table and stomped toward the back of the condo.

Joe brooded over the conversation. He had thought they had a good marriage based on shared interests and prejudices: they loved to read, take walks, and disliked braggarts and prudes. But now he began to question. They had always been of different temperaments. She drew others toward her; his reserve kept them at a distance. He sought quiet; she wanted excitement. Had the impact of their differences been tempered by routine, shrouded in the clouds of the city, only to be revealed in the relentless sun of their new home? But the charge of negativity was off base, and she knew it. Did she think twenty-eight years of dedication to educating kids meant nothing? Didn't the hours he spent after school tutoring and working on committees show he had hope for the future? Sure, he had long ago admitted to himself that he took comfort in the lack of ambition of most of his students and resented the upstarts with grandiose dreams who looked down on their less talented and driven peers. But that was just personal preference, a healthy distrust of burgeoning social climbers and elitists. He had treated them all fairly, that was what counted. And Anne was no stranger to sarcasm.

“Perfection Itself,” she had called Molly McBride, their next door neighbor in Queens who displayed photos of her innumerable offspring in matching white outfits at picnics and golf outings in Westchester and the Cape. (Anne had later shortened the moniker to simply “Itself,” as in, “we got Itself's mail today by mistake. It looks like her subscription to Automaton Monthly is just about up”). If she had developed her sarcastic bent only after exposure to his, it was an even trade for her turning him from magnanimous to a tightwad with her complaints about his spending.

And what if he was less than he could have been, content to be the smart guy in a crowd of boors? There were worse fates. And he didn't need lectures on the specter of death lurking. That may be a revelation to her, but he had known it since he turned over nineteen-year-old Johnny De Silvo on the beach at Iwo Jima and saw the bullet hole in his forehead and the dazed look that seemed to say, “Geez, I didn't know you could get hurt doing this.”

And why did she keep her visits with Mitch from him? That wasn't like her. Anne was independent and would not think twice about having a neighbor over when Joe was out, but he thought she would tell him about it right away. She loved to discuss people and what made them tick. And there was a hint of intimacy to the look she gave Mitch when they left the party that Joe didn't like.

The thought of Anne being unfaithful crossed his mind. Just a few months ago he would have dismissed it out of hand. But he didn't know what to expect in this new world they inhabited. He was reminded of his dalliances: rare visits to prostitutes during the war and a brief fling with a colleague in the Sixties. But Anne was ignorant of both.

He did his best to push away the dark thoughts. He didn't have a shred of evidence that Anne had done anything wrong. On the other hand, he reminded himself, he had acted stupidly and disappointed her. He thought it best to let it blow over, to give her some space. He tried to keep busy. He read up on the history of Arizona and Phoenix. He took walks by the canals and tried to imagine the Hohokam digging them over a thousand years ago. But the oppressive heat made the walks unbearable. In the evenings, it still felt like it was over a hundred degrees. One walk was ruined by an unpleasant encounter with a giant low-swooping bird that Joe thought was a buzzard. The occasional food wrapper or overturned shopping cart he saw in the canal woke him from his historical reverie, reminding him that he wasn't living in the golden age of an ancient civilization but in the midst of a modern civilization's decline. Anne silently accompanied him on the first couple of canal walks and even went with him to visit the Arizona Historical Museum but then started to politely rebuff his invitations, claiming conflicts with various previously planned activities, including bingo. At one time, Joe would have given her a serious ribbing about the bingo, but he kept quiet to avoid further accusations of negativity.

The sun enervated him. He took refuge in sleep that was marked by strange dreams. In one, his mother, dead twenty years, visited him to complain bitterly about his refusal to erect a monument in Central Park to her memory. In another, Dr. Ludwig, the former principal of Stevenson High, informed Joe that his picture would be removed from every yearbook due to his lack of patriotism.

He didn't feel like doing anything. Moving his body was a task. Although at first Anne seemed to view Joe's fatigue as fitting punishment for his crimes, she eventually became concerned, although a retired doctor who lived down the street could find nothing wrong. Anne tried to coax him from his room with promises of elaborate meals or nights on the town. He declined to leave, or maybe he just couldn't leave; he was not sure which.

One morning, Joe sat up in bed, parted the blinds and stared at the rounded peaks of the brown hills in the distance. The sun beat down on the desert and invaded his room, sending rays of light dancing off the white walls. He looked up to see Anne carrying a tray bearing his favorite lunch, fried Spam and provolone on wheat, and a glass of Coke filled with ice.

"Just a temporary lift on the ban on this greasy, artery-clogging concoction," she explained.

Joe took the sandwich but could only manage to stare at it. “Spam,” he muttered, vaguely aware of the strangeness of the word.

“Good job, Joe,” Anne said. “You have correctly identified the mystery meat. How are you feeling?”

He suddenly felt embarrassed by his invalid status and sat up straight. “Just fine. Nothing that a few more months in bed won't cure. Just have the maid vacuum around me.”

Anne rolled her eyes. “My husband the malingerer,” she said.

She cocked her head to the side in a gesture that Joe recognized as signaling a sudden realization. “Do you remember when Alex was a kid you used to make him eat Spam for lunch every day during summer vacation even though he hated it? You said he needed to get used to doing things he didn't like. That was strange. You were a little crazy back then, huh?”

“Back then? A bunch of my fellow geriatrics think I'm a little crazy right now.”

Anne placed her palm on Joe's temple. She shook her head contentedly. “No fever,” she said.

“Annie, if you leave me for Mitch, I hope it's because of his helmet and gun collection and not because you think he's a better person than I am,” Joe said.

Anne sat on the edge of the bed and fixed her eyes on Joe's.

“Better, no. More fun, maybe. But I'm not looking for a trade-in. Is that what you've had the last few days, a case of jealousy?”

“I don't think it's that simple," Joe said quietly.

"Nothing ever is,” she said. She paused, and her voice became scratchy. “Except that the guilty are suspicious. I know about you and Leslie Ross during the Summer of Love. I forgive you. Now eat your breakfast, you lay-about." She looked at Joe with nervousness hidden beneath the equanimity he loved.

He wasn't sure what to do or say. He gazed at his wife with surprise that turned to gratitude and then shame as he thought of her quiet strength and his recent antics born of weakness. He felt the glare of the sun through the window and the pleasure of her eyes on him. He touched the soft gray hair that framed her tanned face. He had an urge to ask her to go skydiving or bungee jumping or engage in some other daredevil activity. But no words came. He took a bite of the sandwich and closed his eyes, feeling the fatigue that had settled down deep.

When he woke, he found Anne sleeping next to him, her warmth against his side. He tried to synchronize his breathing with hers but found it impossible. Her breaths were deeper than his. He rose and walked to the window. She did not stir.

It was late afternoon, and a brilliant orange sun was falling beneath the hills, filling the room with a soft, serene light. Fall would soon be coming.

He thought of himself standing by the window of a room in a cheap Greenwich Village hotel the night that he and Anne had first made love. It was just after V-J day. He remembered the city spread out before him, its lights glittering wildly. Gazing out at a world that suddenly seemed safe again, Joe had dreamed of possibilities as endless as the city's lights, a series of beginnings stretching infinitely into the future, not thinking or caring how it all might end.


"Sunset" Copyright ©2004 by Wim Hylen.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology
should send inquiries by email to the author.
Inquiries by mail may be sent to: Wim Hylen, c/o collectedstories.com,
Columbia U. Station, P.O. Box 250626, New York, NY 10025.
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