Johann woke in the dark of night. It was just after 4:30 in the morning. It was a pattern, this waking so early, then not being able to sleep.
He had been having a dream. He could remember only the last moments of it, his daughter looking much younger than her thirty-nine years, looking up at him, saying "Don't complain, Dad."
That would be her mother's words, he knew, something Marilyn would have said - probably had said - more than once, especially during the last year of their marriage, over now more than twenty years.
He found his slippers and robe in the dark. The living room of his small house glowed a dim eerie blue from a street light on his curtains.
For weeks now Johann had risen like this, half asleep, half dreaming perhaps, before dawn. Peered out the corner of his curtains to the dark yard and half-lighted street. Unwilling to turn on any lights yet, he felt his way about the kitchen to make coffee. Filled the carafe about half full, feeling with one finger for the level; pouring it into his coffeemaker by feel.
He liked doing it in the dark, sometimes with his eyes closed, pretending he was blind just to imagine what it might be like to live with such an infirmity.
He pulled the lid from the Folgers can and suddenly remembered he had used the last of his coffee the morning before. He didn't realize until then that he had been holding his breath while performing the coffee-making ritual. He let it out suddenly between pursed lips.
He had meant to get more. Morning coffee was important for him: the heat and aroma and bitter taste. The change in his body temperature, and in his temper after a cup. There seemed something wrong with the morning without it. Something wrong with him.
This morning wasn't going to be like the other mornings then. He'd have to wake up another way.
Back in his bedroom, he turned on the bedside lamp. First light of the day. He dressed and made sure he had enough money in his pocket to buy at least a large cup at the convenience store three blocks over. If it was open this early, which was a question, since he'd never gone there before the sun was up. No matter. Tie his shoes, grab a light jacket, and out the door.
The neighborhood was as silent as his house. Half a block south, then east down the development's main street, toward the ocean. Sometimes he could hear the surf from here, when the wind was strong enough to produce a surge against the harbor's outer wall. This morning, nothing.
There was one car in the Break Time lot but the door was locked. Johann could see a short dark haired man moving about behind the counter. A sign on the door said "6 AM to Midnight". That meant at least another hour. He knocked.
After three tries, the man came forward and unlocked the door.
"We're not open yet," he said.
"Could I just get a cup of coffee?"
Dark eyes, curly hair, a little paunchy, the manager looked hard at Johann. "You're alone? Don't you live up the street? I've seen you in here pretty often."
"Alone, yes. Coffee. That's all I want and I'll be out of your hair."
The man gave a half grin and held the door open to let Johann in. He locked it carefully after.
"Come on to the back. I don't want anyone else to see I've let someone in early."
"Thanks," said Johann. "Thanks a lot. I just ..." then he shut up and followed the man to the back of the store.
Mo, the manager said his name was. He had already started coffee. "It's the first thing I do," he said. "It's how I start my day too."
Johann laid two dollars on the counter. "I can see you're busy. I'll go."
Mo let him out, waved a farewell, and locked the door again. Johann walked back to the main street and turned east again. One block over was the breakwater. He could feel a breeze just starting, flowing gently over his seventy-two year old parched skin and fine hair. He found a bench and sat, enjoying the early morning dark and the warmth of the paper cup in his hands. He sipped it carefully as it cooled, then popped the plastic lid off and drank the rest.
He was surprised when he woke from dozing, despite the coffee. Or maybe the warmth of the coffee had put him back to sleep. The morning was warm enough, though the breeze was now a light offshore wind. His lids were heavy and his eyes felt puffy; his skin damp and clammy. He felt overwhelmed by tiredness and the smell of brine and decomposing sea weed, both stronger than he remembered ever smelling it. He rose, his knees cold and his thighs stiff.
The sky had lightened to the color of dark lead. He could see the outline of the breakwater now, and the motion of the larger boats anchored in the harbor to his right. Farther out in front of him, the indistinct edge of the world, where the gray Atlantic curved away from sight.
Walking toward home, he wanted more coffee. Break Time was still not open. Johann decided not to impose on the store's manager again.
On his way out of the house that morning, Johann had turned on the kitchen light and browsed through the shelves of the pantry that Colin, his son, had built for him the year before. No coffee, as he expected, but there could have been. His poor memory for such things meant he might have squirreled some away and forgotten about it. The pantry reminded him that Colin had not been around in months. His son was now in his forties, as tall as Johann had once been - six foot, or more. But much heavier. He thought that must come from Marilyn's side of the family. Her father had been a barrel-chested man who put on a lot of weight as he aged, then died quietly of heart failure while cleaning the pen where he kept goats.
Johann had been six foot tall but now was closer to five-nine. Bone shrinkage, the doctor said, and prescribed calcium pills. He was thin though, not like his son.
"You should watch that weight," he had said to Colin as his son carried in the lumber and tools to assemble the pantry. He said it because Colin was sweating and breathing hard. It had been summer though, and a warm day.
"Okay dad," Colin said, not looking at Johann, arranging his tools and fitting a drill bit to his cordless drill.
"It's just, well, you work in an office? Don't get much exercise?"
"Yeah. I walk quite a bit though, one office to another. It's a pretty big bank. And when I get home ..."
"I worry, is all," said Johann.
"Dad. Don't worry. What good does that do? I take care of myself. So what color do you want this thing to be? I'll have it put together by lunchtime, then I'll go get paint."
"Have you heard from your mother?"
Colin steadied a tall side board against the wall and marked holes for drilling.
"I mean, birthdays and such?" said Johann.
"Yeah. Birthdays and such," said Colin.
"How is she?"
"Dad, you should just call her. Why not call her? She'd like to hear from you."
"She could call me."
"She doesn't hear from you, Dad. She doesn't know if you want to talk. She doesn't want to make you mad by intruding."
"Make me mad? Why would that make me mad?"
"Dad ..." Colin said, then turned away and lifted his drill. "I'll clean up the mess when I'm done here, okay? It's wood chips mainly."
The sun was coming up behind Johann now, casting his shadow far down the sidewalk as he walked back toward his house. He turned around to see it but it was too much, too blinding, too white hot and red. He could feel the pressure of it on his back, warming him, and the lifting sea breeze that cooled him as it pushed him toward the shadows of the trees and houses ahead.
He should find all of this beautiful and refreshing. He used to feel that way, especially in the mornings, watching the ocean's horizon for the sun to burst forth the day. He tried to remember the last time he had felt that way. Sometime after he'd moved down here, he supposed, or maybe before that even, while hunting for a house to buy for his retirement. That would have been more than three years ago - had he changed that much?
He examined his shadow, now about to disappear into darkness: thin and long. Long because the sun was so low, and because he was still a tall man, he reflected. Not as tall as he was - getting old reduces you, makes you smaller. A thin shadow because he was getting thinner. Colin's appearance had surprised him from the start: stocky; not at all like his father. And Elaine too, plump at birth and rotund. She'd thinned down by the time she reached high school and now she kept herself fit with regular visits to the gym.
But Johann, a regular cornstalk his father had called him as he gained his height. Like a beanstalk growing into the sky. His favorite story had been that of Jack the Giant Killer. But, Johann reflected, he was no killer and there had been no giants. Instead, he made his life's work about stories and myths and fairy tales, and the novels of his countrymen, metaphors for truths so hard to express in other forms.
"Dad, you think too much. Negative stuff. And you take things too seriously," Elaine had said while pulling boxes of clothes and personal possessions from her rusting Corolla. She had showed up unexpectly a week ago, announcing herself with a rattling muffler and coughing engine and a sudden screech when she opened her driver's side door.
She hadn't said it right away. First it was "Hi Dad. I'm driving to Oregon to start a new job. I just wanted to stop to say hi before I left."
Johann hadn't seen Elaine since the summer before, months ago, when she had driven south the hundred miles from where she lived. She had a new boyfriend then.
"Carl wanted to see where you lived," she had said then. "And, you know, visit the beach and stuff. We're thinking of driving on down to Canaveral to visit the space museum."
No Carl, this time, and predictably, no call.
"A new job? I'm flattered you drove this far out of your way to see me first, but Elaine, how do you expect to get all the way across the country in this thing? It's a heap. You'll break down before you get to Tennessee."
"Maybe, but I've got to move out there right away. I've got this job. I've got to start and find a place to live. It's in Portland."
"Portland? But this car of yours..." said Johann.
"This car of mine. Don't start, Dad. It's all I have."
"Take mine." Johann said this without thinking. He held his breath, thought about taking it back, held his silence.
They agreed to trade. They both knew Elaine wasn't likely to make the west coast in her old car. Johann's car was a couple years old, low mileage and excellent condition. Elaine moved everything she owned from her old Corolla to her father's Mazda. They split a sandwich, corned beef and Swiss cheese on rye bread, and a beer. Elaine hugged him and promised to keep in touch. Then she was gone.
Johann approached his house. This business of living alone. It had been what he thought he wanted, after living in the city and raising a family. Even when Maggie left him it didn't feel wrong - she was so much younger. It was a chance for him to rediscover himself as well, he told himself.
But lately. He'd chosen the little house in Florida near the coast. The breezes, the birds, the smells, the sound of surf. The storms. It all appealed to something in him that he didn't know he was missing until he visited his old friend Chas who had retired here.
Nothing's changed, Johann reflected. Except maybe himself. After all, didn't he believe that people were always, from birth to death, works in progress? Evolving ever into slightly new forms of themselves, for better or worse?
The walk had felt good, and the coffee, but now he wanted another. He'd have to go to the store this morning, get some coffee, come home and brew up a pot.
Staring at his house half a block away now, something didn't look right. Then he remembered. No car.
If he meant to drive Elaine's car at all, it had to have some repairs. The day they traded, he had taken it to Chas's roomy double car garage, where his friend worked on his own and friends' cars as a hobby and for extra income.
The store was much too far to walk. So, no car. And no coffee.
He was certain he had none until he entered his kitchen and pulled open the freezer door. He didn't know why he opened it - what had been on his mind? What was he looking for? He couldn't think. It was just an action, automatic the way pulling a chair out from a table might be automatic. What he found was a bag of excellent Kona coffee beans Elaine had given him for his birthday.
He knew the moment he saw them that's where they came from, but he didn't remember it - the birthday visit, the gift. It was a blank, an unknown.
What else had he forgotten, he wondered, and immediately dismissed the thought. You can't know, he thought. You can't know what you don't know.
That at least was sensible, if not very helpful. Was this forgetfulness a pattern? How would he even know that? The beginning of senility? Alzheimer's?
That all seemed ridiculous. "Don't worry about things," Elaine had said before she left on her long trip. "Don't worry about me."
But Johann had coffee now. He found the grinder and made a full pot. This, he thought, will help me wake up.
It was late morning when, comfortably settled in his overstuffed reading chair, the light on over his shoulder and a novel spilled into his lap, Johann woke up for the third time that morning.
The cup of coffee on his side table was empty. Warm and soothing, it had stimulated him for a while, then acted on him as a soporific. The book, too, "Gravity's Rainbow," Pynchon's self-indulgent sprawling novel about the bombing raids on London near the end of the second world war, this too had put him to sleep despite the coffee, despite himself. Johann had tried more than once to get through this book, feeling it necessary, but the result was always the same. About half way through it always became too much to bear, too internal, too rambling, too pretentious, an overblown dream.
He poured himself another cup and took it outside. Fresh air, that's the thing, and moving about. The Florida sun burned his skin, hurt his eyes. The sun didn't used to burn like this, did it? He wanted shade but there was nowhere to sit. He felt jittery now, too much coffee maybe and waking up, it always left him dazed.
Johann had the feeling he wasn't himself, whatever that might mean. Not who he thought he was, not who he wanted to be. All his life he'd thought himself the good man, the smart man, doing the right things at the right times for the right reasons, and hadn't he been all of that? Married and fathered children and provided for them all, and educated himself and his kids and done his best to be an upright citizen? Was that who he had been, all those years? And even if he had been, was that enough? Was that who he was, or who he was meant to be?
These are crazy thoughts, he knew. Alone. I'm too much alone or I would never delve into such dark thoughts. Too alone and still asleep. He remembered a scene in Aldous Huxley's "Island" - the narrator walking through a forest surrounded by parrots taught to shout "Wake up! Wake up!"
Was that a true memory? Was that actually in that book or had he made that up? Johann wasn't sure, but it was the message of it that mattered. Wake up. At seventy-two he was falling more into his mind, more into darkness, a daze, more out of the actual world, than ever he had been, and this felt wrong. This was not how he meant things to be. What he wanted, he knew, was to wake up, to feel alive and connected to the world. Engaged. How, after all this time, does one start to do such a thing? Was it even possible?
On his feet, outside, there seemed no place for Johann to go, he realized. No new thing for him to do, no door to a new place or a new self. What ending to this story could there be except death? No, he wasn't ready for that, not even close. He would, as Elaine had advised him, not think about that yet.
He set down his coffee cup on the stoop, closed his door and walked back toward the harbor. This was little enough, but he must do something. This place was where he found himself at this moment in his life. He had come here. It may not matter which direction he walked, really, but he felt he might as well walk toward the sun rather than away from it - enact the symbolism, that was something, wasn't it? Surely that must lend this moment some fraction of gravitas. Even if this were the final chapter of his life, mightn't it bring some hint of meaning?