November 2009

Eric Weber


This marks an author's first online publication Eric Weber has published over 30 books. He is an award-winning screen-writer and film director. His film Second Best starring Joe Pantoliano was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently running on the Independent Film Channel. He is also working on a novel, Outliving Emily, and a screenplay for Paramount, Semi Retired.

The Pact

Hanratty is tired, very tired. He labors mightily for each breath. Emily is already in bed, reading. At 87, almost three years older than her husband, she feels no shame going to sleep at what Hanratty considers an embarrassingly early hour.

"I can't believe it," he says, sheepishly letting himself down beside her. He does not slip his long legs under the covers, for that would be an admission that he, too, is ready for sleep. "This is the time farmers from Iowa go to bed, born-again Christians from Kansas." He picks up "Nicholas Nickleby" from the stack of Dickens's novels on his night table. One of his projects is to reread all of Dickens before—Hanratty shakes his head, driving the thought from his mind.

"I don't think what time you go to bed is any measure of how chic you are," says Emily. "They say that for every decade older you get, you go to bed one hour earlier." She speaks with the down-to-earth pragmatism that first endeared her to him more than 60 years ago.

"We've been together six decades," he says. "That means we should be going to bed at five in the afternoon."

She doesn't respond.

"In Rio, people are just now getting dressed for dinner," he says.

"Those poor people," replies Emily without lifting her eyes from her book. "I hate going to bed on a full stomach."

"Don't worry about the Brazilians. They work it off in bed—thongs going half way up their snatch."

Emily looks over at him. "How old are you?"

He is trying to think of a witty retort, but nothing comes to mind. "Eighty-four."

Emily is already back in her book. "It's all you ever think about. Johnny one-note."

Tim opens the novel on his chest, reads four paragraphs, and then, without realizing it, passes into sleep. Emily lifts the book off him, watching as his chest heaves in long, arduous inhalations that never quite seem to satisfy. It scares her; but when he complains about it in the morning she will pooh pooh his concerns.

She reads another five minutes before turning off her light. Rolling onto her right side, she snuggles against Tim's back. She finds this both calming and sensuous. It isn't sex, but it isn't not sex, either.

Sometime around 10:15, after little more than an hour of sleep, Hanratty inevitably will wake. This evening, however, when he opens his eyes, the oversized numerals of the digital radio clock read 11:56. Hanratty's excitement at having managed to stay asleep longer than usual is dashed when he reaches for his first conscious inhalation. His immediate thought had been that the extra sleep was a sign of a deeper than normal relaxation. But the breath is as unsatisfying as the tens of thousands that have come before it.

After an endless string of visits to doctors, the diagnosis was emphysema. "But I've never really been a smoker," said Hanratty.

The pulmonary specialist, a man in his early forties, merely shrugged. "I must tell you at your age the disease is both degenerative and incurable." His manner was curt, unsympathetic, as if to say, You're so old, what do you give a shit—you don't have a beautiful red-headed nurse who has a crush on you, a burgeoning IRA that makes looking at the stock pages every morning a bigger rush than rolling craps at the Bellagio.

Hanratty replied, "Wait till you're eighty-four, pal. You'll be hanging on for dear life, just like the rest of us."

Hanratty would like to feel sleepy enough not to have to get out of bed. He peeks under the covers in the hopes that Emily's nightie will have ridden up over her ass. It has. He contemplates reaching out and massaging her cheeks, as he has thousands of times in the past. But they haven't had intercourse successfully in more than 3 years. March 24th, a Sunday morning, 2005. Even with Viagra, Hanratty hasn't been able to get a firm enough hard on. And Emily, despite a generous lathering of lubricant, has found it too difficult to help shovel him in.

Hanratty lowers the sheet, covering Emily's skinny, sagging butt. It used to be so full and round, now it's wrinkled and sere, much like his own. How ironic, thinks Hanratty, all the young people obsessing about asses, the imperfectness of their own and the magnificence of the ones they lust after, when in the end everyone's turns out looking pretty much the same.

Wearing nothing but his sleeping tee, Hanratty totters out of the pitch-black bedroom, as he has almost every night since they retired to Scottsdale, sixteen years ago. He heads toward the den, his balls banging against his thighs like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Grandfather cock, he thinks. He will have to write it down.

Hanratty enters the den, pulling the door closed behind him. He turns on the light and puts on the outfit he keeps here expressly for the purpose of staying warm during the two hours it will take to feel sleepy enough to climb back into bed: thick Thorlo socks, sweatpants, longshoreman's cap. He can't cover his near naked body quickly enough, for it has come to repulse him. He sets up the oxygen tank, fitting the plastic tubing under his nose and inserting the two little prongs into his nostrils. He breathes in deeply. It helps, but not nearly enough.

Hanratty reaches for one of the dozens of fresh, black and white pebbled notebooks he keeps in the cabinet under his desk. Making a mental note to shorten the title, he writes, "Sex Acts I Will Go To The Grave Without Having Experienced." He opens to the first page and writes: 1) I have never fucked my wife up the ass, nor anyone for that matter. 2) My wife and I have never had a threesome with another woman. 3) Or another man, although once when we rented a sailboat with the Posnicks, Alex came into our bunk and casually plopped down on the bed with us.

Hanratty wonders if Posnick were aiming at something, or was it just the innocent act of a good friend. He has an impulse to call Posnick and ask him, but Posnick is dead. So is Stella. In fact, so is everyone in the gang of eight, as they used to call themselves, except Raymond Phayer, stashed away in a nursing home down in Tempe, his mind totally gone. Last year, at Emily's insistence, they drove down to visit Phayer. Hanratty was stunned at how handsome his old friend still looked, his silver hair as thick as any college freshman's. Phayer did not recognize them. They sat and talked at him for an hour, with Emily telling him every few minutes that he was the handsomest of all the old gang. When it was time to go, Hanratty watched with a kind of agonized amusement as Emily held Phayer's face between her hands and kissed him full on the lips. Christ, in full dementia and she still can't keep her hands off him. He wondered, ruefully, what it would have been like to breeze through life looking like Phayer.

On the drive home, Hanratty asked Emily if she were lumping him among the men that Raymond was handsomer than. "Oh, Tim," she answered, "can't you see I was just trying to make him feel good."

Grabbing a fresh notebook, Hanratty christens it, "Dead Friends." In it, he writes, 1) Alex Posnick, 2005, fatal heart attack at 71, rumored to have died in flagrante with his 86 year old girlfriend, the widow Norsgaard; 2) Stella Posnick, 2005, age unknown, drowned alone in backyard hot tub several days after learning of death of estranged husband; 3) Miranda Phayer, 2001, only 53 years old, cancer of the spine, youngest of us all: 4) Ethan Lerner, 67, heart attack, two weeks after his wife Sarah left him for Raymond Phayer; 5) Sarah Lerner, 74, lung cancer.

As has often happened during the middle of the night, Hanratty gets totally caught up in his writing. He chuckles to himself, imagining the drawing his illustrator, Benny Levenstein, will do of Posnick dead in bed with his ancient girlfriend. God, Levenstein's made him look good. After his forced retirement as editor-in-chief of Dutton Books, Hanratty teamed up with the illustrator; and the two began a small but enjoyable career by converting Hanratty's notebooks into humorous, illustrated non-books, among them "Gentiles Who Hang Around Only With Jews," "How To Asphyxiate Your Asthmatic Child," and "99 Ways To Outlive Your Spouse."

He makes a note to call Levenstein in the morning. But Levenstein is dead three years now. The realization comes crashing down on Hanratty. This is why it's been years since he's had a new book published. All these ideas and no illustrator to bring them to life.

Hanratty feels himself struggling for breath. He checks his oxygen tank. Empty. Before he gets a new one out of the cabinet, he goes to the bathroom and pees. Washing his hands, he stares at himself in the mirror, hating his mottled skin, his now completely hairless dome, his yellowed teeth, his sagging flesh. He pictures himself interviewing illustrators in their twenties, watching their eyes as this haggard man, gasping for breath, presents his ideas about fucking, or rather, not fucking his 87 year old wife up the bum. It isn't the content, he thinks, it's the package. Too shriveled. Too unappealing. No one wants to work with someone who looks like me, no matter how clever I might be.

A rage surges in Hanratty. How grossly unfair to have lived so long, to be so fragile, so cut off, and now, on top of it all, to struggle so for oxygen, something the narcissistic young don't even think about as they lust for ever more—sex with their neighbor's spouse, the new Bentley Flying Spur.

His heart beating wildly and erratically, Hanratty opens the medicine cabinet and takes out the vial of Atenelol beta blocker he keeps here for late night emergencies. The night, much more than the day, seems to roil Hanratty's heart. Dreams, rages, dread—over the past decade he has come to recognize them as the signposts of an impending episode of atrial fibrillation.

He swallows one of the tiny pills with a glass of water, debating whether to take another. The doctor has warned him that too much beta blocker can slow the heart to the point where it actually stops. The pills—so tiny yet so fucking powerful. It would be so easy to swallow a dozen. A hundred. Talk about slowing one's heart.

"Emily," he says, "wake up."

"What is it?"

"I want to talk to you. I have the most amazing idea."

"Tell me in the morning."

"No, it can't wait." Hanratty switches on the lamp on her night table, and she rolls over, turning her back to it.

"What," she says.

"Sit up. You have to look at me."

"Oh, Christ, Tim, you always do this to me." She sits up, rubbing her eyes. Her husband is looming over her. "Sit down," she orders.

Hanratty sits on the edge of the bed. He reaches out. "Hold my hand," he says.

"I don't want to hold your hand. You woke me up."

Hanratty shows her the vial of Atenelol, his hand shaking so with the enormity of his idea that the pills inside shimmy and shuffle, making the sound of a castanet. "I have found the perfect way for us to escape this shit-hole existence."

Quite suddenly, she reaches out and tries to grab the vial. "Give me those!"

"Not me alone—us together."

"Your breathing will improve, you're just going through a phase. It's anxiety."

"It's not just the breathing, you idiot. It's everything—not being able to play golf, no friends left, no sex, no one to illustrate my books—"

"You'll find someone else. There are dozens of artists around here."

"We have nothing left to live for. And it's only going to get worse."

Emily is shrinking away from him. "You're scaring me, Tim. You really are."

"I'm sorry," he says. "It's just—it would be such an easy way to get it over with. So brave and different. I hate hanging on to every pathetic hour, just like every other slob, the skin hanging off us like on a fucking chicken." He holds up his bare arms. "Look at me. I can't stand the sight of myself."

"You've always said you were going to outlive me. What's happened?"

"I don't want to outlive you. And I don't want you to outlive me. I want us to go together. I can't think of a better solution."

Emily just shakes her head. "You're such a baby. Look at my legs." She pushes down the comforter, revealing woefully swollen ankles. "Congestive heart failure is way worse than a little emphysema." She pulls the comforter back over her legs. "You know, the trouble with you, Tim, it's always about you. Such a whiner. Oh, poor me, I can't stand struggling with my health like everyone else we know. And what about Margaret and Riley, for God's sake. She's so dependent on you—can you imagine how devastating it'll be to discover that her own father didn't love her enough to stay alive for her? This is a troubled young woman, Tim."

Oh, now you admit it, he thinks. But he merely hangs his head, chagrinned.

"And don't you want to see Riley, for God's sake, starting fullback and only a sophomore."

"We're going to fly 3,000 miles to Boston in November in our health?"

"I am. You can bet your bottom dollar on that."

Hanratty cannot stop thinking about his idea. Every time he takes his daily Atenelol, he looks at the tiny pills, struck with admiration of their lethalness. He imagines slipping a handful into Emily's morning bowl of raisin bran, then, as they take effect, swallowing a handful himself. But he does not want to trick her. What excites him most about the idea is that he sees it as an act of rebellion, a couple deciding to flout convention together, to skip the medicines, their side effects, the procedures, hospital stays, experimental drug trials—all for a lousy few extra months of life as a fucking pin cushion.

He wonders why Emily is so intent on staying alive. Because her mother and two aunts lived deep into their nineties? Does she think he's trying to cheat her out of an extra decade because he can't stand the idea of her living on without him? He has never hidden the fact that his worst fear is that Emily will remarry and fall so happily in love with her new husband that Hanratty fades into a distant memory.

Several weeks later, as he putters about the kitchen at dawn, squeezing oranges, making decaf, waiting for Emily to get up, she calls to him from the bedroom. Her voice is panicked. She cannot get out of bed.

By the time Hanratty reaches her, she has thrown the covers to the floor. Her normally swollen ankles now look three times their usual size. Hanratty dials 911. An ambulance whisks them down to Scottsdale Methodist. It is, as Emily suspected, yet another episode of congestive heart failure, this one far worse than the last. The emergency room physician gives her a diuretic and admits her into the hospital. Hanratty insists on sleeping on a cot in her room. "I can no longer spend a night without you," he says. The staff has to set up oxygen for him.

The next morning, Emily is examined by her cardiologist of the past several years, but not with his usual upbeat chatter about the astonishing youthfulness of her figure. When he is finished listening to her heart from every possible angle, he pulls up a chair. "I am going to send you home, Emily, but, frankly, I'm afraid you could be back here tomorrow. Your heartbeat is very weak right now." He turns to look at Tim. "You cannot leave her alone, not even for half an hour. Is that clear?"

On the way back in the town car, Hanratty looks over at his wife. She is staring out the window, shivering. He reaches across the seat to take Emily's hand. "Turn down the air conditioner," he tells the driver. "It's freezing back here."

"I'm sorry, sir, the air conditioner isn't on."

"Then turn on the fucking heat."

Putting Emily into the wheelchair loaned to them by the hospital, the driver helps them into the house. Hanratty tips the man forty dollars and asks for his card.

Hanratty hobbles around the kitchen, making them tea. He wants to bring up his idea, but thinks it would be cruel right now. He simply says, "Don't leave me, Em. After all this time, I cannot possibly live without you."

"You don't want to have sex with other girls?"


"You always said you wanted to."

"Not anymore. Besides, who would have me? And if they would, I'm not sure I could."

"You've never been with anyone besides me, have you?"

Hanratty has never admitted this to her before. "Nope. You're the only one."

"I've been with other guys, you know."

"I know."

"But not as many as you think."

"It's okay, even if it was a hundred. I couldn't have wished for a better wife."

"I never slept with anyone after the night we met."

This strikes Hanratty as odd, for in all the years they've been together, Emily has never once, except under his most insistent probing, volunteered even the mildest fact about her sex life. She is tying up loose ends, he thinks, seeking closure. Suppressing a shudder of gargantuan sadness and loss, Hanratty senses she is in the process of yielding to him. He does not want to startle or anger her. "It'd be okay, even if you had," he says in his softest, kindest voice.

"At least this way," she says, in barely more than a whisper, "we won't be using up all of Meg's inheritance."

Hanratty simply nods.

The same driver who took them home from the hospital pushes Emily back out to the town car. Hanratty helps him lift his wife onto the back seat. She is struggling for breath with far greater urgency than Hanratty ever has.

"I want you to take us down to the little park in front of the capital," says Hanratty. He asks the driver to close the glass partition between them. Hanratty is in a manic state. This mission seems glamorous, romantic, almost sexy. The whole idea of his and Emily's hurling themselves into the unknown, like Thelma and Louise, like Bonnie and Clyde, is the antithesis of his heretofore obsessively careful life.

He squeezes his best girl's hand, his love for her at this moment monumental, grandiose, the stuff of operas, of rock songs. Brenda and Eddie, Jack and Diane. He takes out one of his pebbled notebooks. "I'm going to leave this on our laps," he tells Emily. She seems too exhausted to respond.

"I want to read you what I've written," he says. Emily is not looking at him, her gaze lost somewhere out the front windshield. "'To Whom It May Concern: We, Emily and Timothy Hanratty, being of sound mind, have this day of April 19, the year 2008, at approximately 10:30 a.m., each taken five hundred milligrams of Atenelol with the express purpose of ending our lives. In the remote case that we are discovered before we have died, do not under any circumstances try to revive us. We have chosen to end our lives as an act of our own free will. Signed, Emily and Timothy Hanratty.' I've taken the liberty of forging your signature. I figure if they find out it'll be a little too late to put me in jail." He chuckles at his joke and closes the notebook.

From a Whole Foods shopping bag, he takes out a bottle of Evian and a can of Dr. Brown's cream soda. "You'll wash 'em down with water, I with my favorite drink in the whole world. It's so great not having to worry about my sugar count anymore."

Her face wan and mournful, Emily forces an exhausted little smile. "I can't tell you how excited I am by this, Em, I really can't. It's an existential act. Everyone else just hangs on by their fingernails, hoping the inevitable won't take place." Hanratty is speaking rapidly, like someone who has drunk too much coffee. "They suffer horrifically, experiencing the basest degradation of life. But, we, we have chosen not to sit by passively, letting our life grind to a halt. No, we're beating death to the punch—robbing death of its sting."

Normally, Hanratty would be panting from such exertion, such consumption of breath. But a massive surge of adrenalin has energized his entire being. For years now he has wondered what it would feel like to slam into a tree at one hundred miles per hour, to crash into the pavement from the twenty-fifth floor, to be leapt upon by a mountain lion. The sudden impact. The instant of contact. The absolute knowledge that one has but moments to live. Now he will know. His own bravery has infused him with a sense of omnipotence.

The town car pulls to the curb opposite the capital building. Hanratty would have preferred a bigger stage, Washington, New York. Given the circumstances, Phoenix will have to do. He, they, are making a statement.

The driver gets the wheelchair out of the trunk and comes around to Emily's side of the car. Emily's eyes are closed, her face gray, her breath coming in quick, little pants, like a dog's on a summer day.

Hanratty climbs in front of her and out onto the sidewalk. The driver pulls Emily toward him, and she immediately slumps forward, her head falling against his shoulder.

The driver turns to Hanratty. "Oh, my God, is she okay!"

"Don't worry, she gets like this all the time—car sick. She just needs some fresh air."

The driver lifts Emily out of the backseat and places her in the wheelchair. "I don't know, Mister," he says, "she seems really, really sick. I'm going to call an ambulance."

Hanratty hands him a one hundred dollar bill. "I'm telling you, she'll be fine. Just help me wheel her over to the bench."

When the car pulls away, Hanratty leans down and kisses Emily on the forehead. Her skin is cool against his lips, her breathing now quiet, irregular. He whispers into her ear, "I love you, Em, I've loved you the instant I laid eyes on you." It's a bit of a lie, but he senses it is the one thing she would want to hear most.

He sits on the bench. "Hold on, sweetie, just a little while longer. You can do it. Ah, doesn't the sun feel good beating down upon us." The sun is indeed out, another typical Arizona spring day, virtually no humidity nor clouds, a light, dry breeze coming from the northwest. Hanratty takes the vial of Atenelol out of his pocket and empties several dozen of the little pills into the palm of his hand. He imagines their power as they spread into his and Emily's blood streams. He has an image of he and his wife being part of the same circulatory system. He reaches out and takes hold of Emily's hand. "Are you ready, hon?" He squeezes Emily's hand ever so gently with the surge of love and tenderness he is feeling for her. She does not, as she usually does, squeeze back. Her hand feels strangely inert, like a bean bag. Her eyes are staring straight ahead, unblinking, unseeing.

"Ah, no, Em, no. It can't be over this soon. It can't." He starts to mewl, soft, convulsive little sobs. "Ah, no. Ah, no. 63 years together, Em, 63 years. How can it be over so fast."

He unsnaps the Dr. Brown's soda. "I'm coming, baby, coming right now." He pauses, wanting, for just a few more minutes, to savor this act of rebellion. He only wishes he could somehow see the press reports of it. He looks around the capital grounds across the street, wanting there to be crowds of pedestrians, tourists, lawmakers. But this Tuesday morning there is hardly anyone. The capital looks particularly indifferent.

A wave of futility passes over Hanratty. Two decrepit old pensioners snuffing themselves to make a statement. Who gives a shit. He glances over at Emily, stiffening now in her wheelchair, her profile to him, uninterested, gone. He moves the Atenelol toward his mouth, his upturned palm cradling the little pills glinting in the mid-day sun. But he can't seem to open his mouth. The day has lost all its glamour, its unlimited sense of possibility.

Hanratty flings the pills onto the octagonal stones that pave the plaza in front of him. They bounce and scatter like hailstones, the sound of which attracts a nearby flock of pigeons. With a dusty flapping of wings, the birds are on the little blue pills in an instant, pecking at the beta blockers as if they were kernels of corn. Hanratty's instinct is to shoo them away, but before he can stand the sound of sirens pierces the morning air. He sags back into the bench, cursing himself for not having tipped the driver an extra hundred. He takes Emily's hand in his own and rubs it on his cheek.

"I'm sorry, baby, can't do it. I'm just a big chicken, after all." He weeps quietly, softly. He hasn't enough breath to do anything more. "Don't worry, sweetie," he whispers, "I'm not far behind." On the far side of the square he sees several cop cars, then an ambulance streak into view. He pulls his best girl close and spreads his notebook across their laps. Resting his head on Emily's shoulder, he closes his eyes, blocking out the world around him. It's been a good life together, a great life. He can't bear for anything to change.



Eric Weber: Poetry
Copyright ©2009 The Cortland Review Issue 45The Cortland Review