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The Listener

The Listener listened solemnly, as was his wont, while his wife explained her reasons for going. I cannot abide this, she said to him finally, tossing her things on a chair. I can’t take you any longer.

The Listener stood pensively, scratching his arm, perusing the news on the set. He couldn’t make out the latest rumblings from Washington, nor the source of ire from his wife, though he was less interested in both than the approach of the sun through the glass. It had been raining for twenty hours, and he was not inclined to stay inside.

Go then, he told her, without any force, without any sense that he spoke.

She watched him starkly. She shut the door. Then he listened as she walked down the steps.

The Listener was not without his own deficits in life. For one, he was balding, a fact he wouldn’t have disavowed. Second, his stomach was rounding, which wasn’t through any fault of his own—his metabolism had slowed since the infusions had begun, and he could barely keep solid food down. Finally, he’d never been one to mince words, much less speak unprompted, which had been taken for coyness, or sass. He was also somewhat irritable—again, blame the drugs. He eased himself onto the couch.

He flipped through the channels. He began reading Freud, whom he loathed.

The meaning of the evolution of culture is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction…

Death had won out, The Listener well knew, as had Schopenhauer, on whom Freud had undoubtedly drawn. Where Freud had erred, though—and Schopenhauer too—was in assuming the will to live could persist, or in any way combat this: the dark nothingness ahead. The abyss.

I don’t believe she left me, he wanted to say, and in another world, he might have heard himself speak. Instead he kept reading and staring at the page as if the words there could harbor some life. There is life as well as death, the printed words proclaimed, like some hieroglyph etched on a mound. What mystery is contained there, he heard himself think, and he stared at the day’s breaking light: some lambent glow in the boughs to the east, like the tiniest flare in a hearth.

Outside in the field, he came upon a column of cankered red branches and shoots—it was technically the remains of his ancient crabapple, which the City had chopped this fall, ostensibly to protect running lines. He glanced at its spindly façade, the rows of dried thorns, the desiccated sprigs of white bloom. He could hear dancing in the distance: a thrush came to rest on a trellis of vines by his door. He could hear it whistle softly, some somber chant: Ee-oo, ee-oo, went the vines. And he gripped its wood carcass, which was lichened and wet and rotting here, bleakly, in thorns.

Beyond him, the grainy drawn gathered: some misted expanse of light breaking over the north.

What would his wife say—where had she gone?—if he died right here on this peak? He could see half of Ithaca; the yard was set back and about a kilometer east of downtown, perched along the hills above the spread of Cayuga Lake.

He watched the sun smolder and crest in the sky. And he tried not to think about Freud. The instincts of destruction are in us, he knew, as he lugged his wedge maul from the shed. He began by splitting quarters—from the City’s late fell—and settled into halves, growing weak. He could feel his strength flagging. The death drive, indeed. And where might his Eros have gone?

Inside, he sat along his carpet, glass of port in-hand, and tried to arouse his meek self. He didn’t glance at his iPhone—the thing barely worked—nor the faded glow of his screen. Netflix was on repeat. House of Cards, in fact. And Kevin Spacey kept flexing his face. What had he been accused of?

The Listener sat up and rubbed at his eyes and kneaded the knobs of his face. He tried to picture an ex-girlfriend, one he’d met at camp all of forty years back in south Maine, and the way she had come to him gently one evening along the shore of a dock in her suit. She would later leave him, as every woman would, as every person had on this Earth. And what had he been left with: faint, musky scents of stale lake water, perfume, and DEET?

He wouldn’t miss his first lover, nor his (ex-) wife, but merely the facts of their loss. He carefully listened to the moonlight—what sounds he could hear—and the whirr of his set as it blinked. He could almost hear Kevin Spacey—though the show was on mute—and the click of machines in his house. Somewhere in his bedroom the Methotrexate lurked, and the bed into which he’d soon creep.

He faced the window: outside he saw light and the darkening sphere and the plains. Then out in the distance, beyond the black dusk, he saw a figure approaching in grass. She was weaving through darkness, softly clutching her hair, in a salmon-colored one piece and smiling. She stopped. She peeled her top off. Come with me, she said. I’ll make you a lover. A man. And then she pressed against his window. She peered in his den. All she could see there was dark. She cupped her hands. She blew upon the pane. A cloudlet of breath fogged his glass.

The girl left.

The Listener kept listening to the glass and himself, to the glow of his screens, and the dark.

J. A. Bernstein is the author of a novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the A.W.P. Award Series and Hackney Prizes. He teaches in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Find more of his work at writingwar.com.