It was the hill where they placed the dead.
The old, the young, the sick and maimed—it didn’t matter to the hill. Its only obligation was to receive them, soak in the putrid fluids from their wounds, and finally watch as the carrion descended. A hill can do all of that quite coldly. Death, after all, is the answer to life’s question.
It was as well, I thought, since there is nothing personal in death—and isn’t an individual personality a tyranny? How many of us long to be in a mob, a part of a raging riot that has a mind of its own? To sweep through the streets towards the Bastille, sure that nothing can stop it. At last, having the ‘I’ become ‘it.’
And so I came across the body, in my first steps up the hill. I sat beside it, for a while, since it seemed somehow lonely.
“Well, I was so in life, as well,” it said.
“Lonely, I mean. It’s the price of success. And I was successful, very much so….”
“That wasn’t what you wished?”
“Very much so, and not, in the end. But yes, I spent a lot of time and energy upon that success. In my youth, I had looks. Later, I had money. And at the end, I had no one. My wife had left me, emotionally, years ago, though she never moved out. But there was no companionship, nothing sweet between us. And my children? They hovered around me, waiting for me to die, wondering who would get how much. I very nearly left them nothing….”
“You were that angry?”
“I had gone past anger. I was tired. And I wasn’t sure that I cared enough to do anything at all. But I was a man of business, and knew that if I did nothing, the lawyers would descend and grab as much of the goods as they could. And so I died, and was happy to do so.”
“Was there nothing good in your life?”
“Good? There were many things good, I suppose. You forget them,. You know, as you get older. Or rather, you stop seeking them. It was a pleasure, yes, to be young. I was strong, I was handsome, and I had drive. But then, I began to treasure my age. The body worked less well, yes, but that didn’t much matter. I was clearer, then, than I had been when I was young. And it was easier….”
“And so you lived….”
“I suppose. It wasn’t much of a life, really. I spent most of it building my business, and I did very well. But something happened—in the days when my wife and I had had nothing, we had each other, and that had been something. Everything, really. We used to joke that we had houseguests—referring to the roaches that we could never get rid of. And then, one day, we got our first house, and we made love that first night. I’ll never forget, making love that night. The bliss of being in a place of our own—a place we could make our own. I went to the bathroom, later, and I touched the walls, marveling, and saying ‘this is mine.’ Yes, happy—I think I was happy then….”
“You think? Didn’t you know?”
“Whoever knows when one is happy? And when you think that you are…well, should you be? Happiness is a sort of artifact. It’s the byproduct of a reaction, but just the byproduct. It means nothing, by itself…”
“Yet most people seek it.”
“Most people seek the things they should not. I did, for too many years. And then I was old, and quite tired, and did it make sense, really, to throw out everything I had worked for? So I played golf, and went to the clubs, and saw the same people and said the same things. I was bored, in the end….”
“Why didn’t you change?”
“Change? What would have been the point? Go off to Tahiti, and paint nudes under the tropical sun? At the end of my life, I could have bought Tahiti, and somehow, that alters things. Only a young, and poor, man can live on the beach, and paint the nudes. We older men pine for soft beds, drinks by the pool, and well-cooked food. More men have died in comfort than have ever died in prison….”
“And so you went on?”
“Yes. Because always there was the hope that the next day would be different. I would wake up, energized, and do…”
“I don’t know what. But I knew it was something. Something with meaning—something that would challenge me and stir me and lead me to a place I hadn’t been before.”
“And that place was?”
“To the center, perhaps. To the core of decisions. To the place where I could stop and rest. It had been an effort, all those years, to keep up the pretense.”
“What was the pretense?”
“My success. Because to succeed in business is easy, for most men. We’re built that way, just as we’re built for sports. But the terrible moment in business comes when you start to believe it. Your corporation, or your business, defines you. You believe the money and the success is you. And then it stops being fun, and you stop seeing the purpose of it all, and somehow, you keep working harder and harder, like a junkie, seeking a lost high. And then it’s eleven o’clock at night, and you’re checking emails and worrying about the foreign markets—what is the yen doing now? And you hear your wife stirring in the other room, and you know that she’s going down to make herself a drink, because she’s been doing that more and more. And at dinner, she has that glassy look, and she’s speaking too carefully, and you think, ‘oh God, not again.’ You should go out, you should confront her, and then you get angry, and you think, ‘oh, just let her drink to death. To hell with her!’ And then you remember when having a bottle of wine was a rarity, a special moment, an occasion. How you savored it, and made it last! We would both be a little tipsy, and I would be amorous, and the sex would seem special, hallowed. But now you have a wine cellar, and spend more for a bottle than you could ever have imagined, and in the end, it means nothing. Your wife gets up, the maid clears the table, and you both go into the library. She reads, perhaps, and you watch a game on television. It is another night in your life together.”
“That is what it had come to?”
“That is what it comes to.”
“I suspect. Good, in a way. Who could keep up that youthful passion? A tenement apartment filled with roaches is where a young man should be. But at 75? 80? You want space, a cleanliness, and a maid to take away the dishes and clean up. And deal with the roaches.”
“And so you were happy?”
“That word again! It has no place, you know. It means nothing, and to have it or to seek it, or even to value it enough to think about it—well, all that is a mistake.”
“Ah, joy. There may be a place in the lexicon for joy. It is, at least, the consequence of something real, as happiness is so often not.”
“I certainly knew it. I tried neither to avoid it nor wallow in it.“
“And so, what did you learn? What was your life about in the end?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I was born naked, and I died well-clothed, but little changed for all that. I lived a straightforward life, and I did well. My children didn’t have to struggle in quite the way I had to, and that was a good thing, I suppose. No, I have nothing to complain of.”
The vultures had been circling all during the conversation. Suddenly, he flung open his arms and embraced them.