THE OLD MAN’S LOVE STORY
By Rudolfo Anaya
University of Oklahoma Press, $19.95; 176 pp.
An old man loses his wife, his lifelong companion, who dies of old age. He struggles to understand the void she leaves in his life. This might be a pedestrian story in the hands of a lesser writer, but in the hands of Rudolfo Anaya, it becomes a journey though the changes age brings at the end of life.
“An anguish deep in his soul sprouted and set loose suffocating tentacles. He had not cried since childhood, but now he cried. The loss he felt wracked his days and nights. He had entered a time of grieving, not knowing if it had an end.”
It is also a time of self-examination and self-evaluation. He is fiercely lonely and considers trying to establish a relationship with another woman, a new romance. But he is old, and he still feels his wife’s presence and speaks to her with his inner voice. He tells her about his loneliness and his doubts about starting a new relationship. “Anyway, he said, who would want to kiss an old man? They think we smell. I shower! I shave! I use deodorant! He paused. My body feels dry and crinkly. I don’t sweat like I used to. I can go days without a bath.”
He tries going to the senior citizen center. He joins a swim class. He feels ill at ease.
“I don’t like it! Some of the men do smell — one even wets his pants. He won’t wear those Depends diapers. The old wags smell — use a lot of cheap prefumes.
“‘We all smell!’ he blurted out. ‘So what!’”
Despite his self-professed malodorousness, the old man can’t forget the pleasure that physical contact with another person brings. “‘A woman’s body to hold — you know?”
He keeps talking to his wife and sets up her photograph in a prominent place. “He would kiss the photograph, imagine that she kissed back, that he could smell her fragrance. He would say sweet words to her in Spanish, ‘Querida. Preciosa. You look lovely. Spring is in the air. The goldfish in the pond are swarming, making goldfish love. Did you know ducks are monogamous? And the heron is back. Spring clouds cavorting in a clear New Mexican sky.”
Surrounded by natural beauty in his Albuquerque home, the old man feels old emotions stirring, but he can’t swim out of the sea of grief that engulfs him. He tries to get to know the woman at the senior center. He wants a lunch companion. Eating alone has become a depressing chore, but the more he finds out about other old people, the more he realizes the difficulty of establishing the kind of trust and love he felt with his wife.
“… the old gals at the senior center had their own problems. One had just had all her teeth pulled. No sense in inviting her to lunch. They all suffered. Getting fat. Colitis. Bloated stomachs. Knee bone grating on knee bone. Cancer, heart problems … on and on.
“Some had lost their entire life savings in the bad economy. Brokers had promised a killing in hedge funds that didn’t deliver. The seniors played bingo and lamented. ‘Nothing left,’ they whispered. ‘Maybe find a man,’ one woman said. Two Social Security checks were better than one. Just barely making it.”
Considering such poor prospects, “Warm up some soup, the old man thought. A salad would be nice. The doctor on TV said to eat a salad every day.”
The old man drifts through his life, occasionally making contact with family members who come to help with his garden and with the other seniors at the center who are, after all, just as lonely as he is. He is sustained by an animistic faith that informs his world view and his memories of his wife. His ongoing dialog with her spans time and he seems to access remembered events the way Billy Pilgrim did in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse Five.
The protagonist of the story is never named, but he is a writer whose works are very like the works of Anaya, the dean of Hispanic writers in the United States. Like Anaya, the writer lives in New Mexico where this tale is set. Clearly, this novel is more than a little autobiographical. It has a plot that advances slowly toward a foreseeable conclusion. Despite that predictability, this is a book that is filled with lyrical writing that describes the old man’s mystical beliefs about nature and the towering love for his wife that has sustained him throughout his life. It’s a book best appreciated by those with a few miles on their odometers or who have recently experienced loss of a loved one, but it will appeal to anyone who loves good writing.