There are so many ways to keep in touch these days. It’s a wonder people aren’t closer. It used to be in the old days you didn’t see someone for days or weeks, you had to call them, or wait for them to call you. Maybe they were home. Maybe they had voice mail or a machine. Maybe you were home when they called. Maybe you weren’t and they didn’t leave a message. You might not even know they called. It was easy to miss someone, and easier to be missed. Also easier to duck someone you didn’t want to talk to or see. But then were they ducking you?
Nowadays of course everyone has a phone in their pocket with email and voice mail and instant messages and social media. A half dozen or more tentacles of open communication branching off each of us, flexing about and looking for another tentacle for connection, and everybody more distant than they’ve ever been. Everyone constantly checking their devices, or simply staring blankly at the screen as they sit or walk or drive. Everyone distant and connected.
Morrie sent me an email saying he wanted to meet. Right after that, I got a text message from him, asking if I’d received the email. Ten minutes later the phone rang and I let it go to voice mail. Morrie left a message, then called back. “Let’s meet,” he said.
“We’re under siege,” I reminded him. “Stay indoors. No unnecessary trips. The angel of death is a-loose in the land.”
“I’m a Republican all my life and even longer a Jew,” Morrie reminded me. “The orders of Governor Nuisance don’t apply to me. Besides, it’s necessary that someone help me smoke all these cigars before I die.”
“What if I infect you?”
They were not yet patrolling our neighborhood with drones, so the walk to Morrie’s was still quick and easy. Along the way I passed three masked dog walkers and noticed people talking across balconies. Crossing one street I saw a group of masked joggers heading in the opposite direction, the government mandated distance between runners giving them a militaristic appearance. Morrie’s street was thankfully deserted and all the houses brightly lit as evening loomed. The days had been cloudy and rainy lately, adding some gloom to an already excessively melancholy situation. Right now the weather was mostly clear, but reports indicated another shower was imminent.
Once I reached Morrie’s house, I didn’t bother going to the front door. Since he had mentioned cigars, I knew he would be in the garden already, so I just went to the gate and let myself into the backyard. Morrie was seated in the gazebo he took from the backlot when he left the studio. It was part of the set of some old movie he loved — he never would tell me the film, and I never could narrow it down. He greeted me with a wave, signaling me to come over. As I approached I could see he already had glasses waiting, so I set the bottle on the table.
“Ah!” Morrie exclaimed when he saw the bottle. “You brought the Jeff.”
“Not the usual,” I said. “Take a closer look.” I took one of his cigars, cut it, and began to light it.
Morrie picked up the bottle and squinted in the falling light. “Presidential.” He chuckled, then he whistled. “Thirty years old.” He started to open it, then paused. “You haven’t opened this yet.”
“I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”
“It must be some special occasion to open a bottle of thirty-year old bourbon,” he said.
“It is,” I said. “Rend the veil asunder and pour.”
He looked at me. “What’s the occasion?”
“Aside from you’re opening that bottle?” I waved dramatically at the outside world. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, bubeleh.”
“Ah,” he said. “Lenny Bruce is not afraid.”
He opened the bottle and poured us two generous portions.
I raised my glass to him. “Hail to the chief.”
Morrie accepted the toast and we drank, each of us drawing slowly on the cigar. The city was very quiet and growing dark around us. There was no traffic on the streets so the usual sound of cars was missing. Once you’re used to something like that it’s strange to have it go away so suddenly.
“I’m glad my wife isn’t around to see this,” Morrie said.
“She always did hate when I’d come over with the bourbon and cigars.” I took a drink and a draw and marveled that I could hear the burning tobacco crackle. “What was that she used to call me?”
“Dybbuk,” he said. “It means, devil.”
“I know what it means,” I said. “I saw that movie.”
“She liked you anyway,” he offered. “And she would be happy you are here.”
“I’m not here, thought,” I said. “Not really.”
He thought about it. “You’re right,” he said. “None of this is real.”
It got darker and we drank more but neither of us finished our cigars. They were these Churchill-sized numbers from Nicaragua and they really didn’t do the bourbon justice. We were quiet for a long time, much longer than usual for either of us. We are both inveterate storytellers and usually don’t even need the lubrication of a double bourbon to get the wheels rolling. But tonight everything was different. There was no city around us tonight. It seemed as if the whole world had gone dark and silent. Everyone had decided to practice dying in place. There were soft sounds in the distance, so far away and vague you couldn’t really tell what it was making the noise. Probably a television. Possibly someone on their phone. There was even the slight chance of a conversation going on some place.
“She wouldn’t have liked this,” Morrie finally said. It had been maybe five minutes of silence but I remembered he was talking about his wife.
I waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, I said, “Nobody likes this.”
“Somebody out there likes this,” Morrie declared. “Somebody out there wants this. Somebody out there needs this.” He poured himself another drink and gave me a refill. “It’s ironic, really. When you think about it. For me, anyways.”
“How do you mean?”
“Look at me, ” he said. “Ever since the doctor says.” He took a drink. “Here I am. Every day. That nurse, every day. Once a week the physical therapist.”
“Don’t forget your therapeutical massage.”
“How could I?” He drank. “Ever since the doctor says, and I’m here at home, every day, like a prison.” He drank again. “Sure, a five-star prison. Sunset Strip style. But it’s a prison.” He finished his drink. “I’m trapped here. Because of a goddam disease. And now, the whole world’s like me. Shut down. Gone inside. Proverbially waiting for the proverbial next proverbial shoe to proverbially drop. Because of a goddam disease.”
“Maybe you want to take it easy on the Jeff,” I said. “Savor it.”
“Fuck it,” Morrie said, glaring at his empty glass.
“Don’t do that.”
“Of course,” he said. He leaned forward and carefully set the glass on the table. “You’re right, of course. You don’t guzzle this stuff. Sip and savor.”
“What day is this?” I asked him.
“Sunday,” he said.
“No, I mean, what day is it?”
“Don’t be a cipher.”
“I know you,” I told him. “You get like this. I know. I can guess. But why don’t you tell me?”
He picked up the bottle and poured himself another but he didn’t take a drink. Instead he corked the bottle and held it in his hands. “This bottle,” he said. “Thirty years. I thought maybe you knew.”
I thought about it. Thirty years ago in Hollywood. “It was before my time,” I told him.
“When Morrie met Harry,” he said. “You know that story?”
“That was today?”
He nodded. “It was thirty years ago today that Bob Evans taught the man to play.” Morrie picked up his glass.
I nodded and lifted my glass. “To Harry.”
We drank. Somewhere a police siren wound up and screamed down an empty street.
“Harry would have loved this shit.”
“You mean the whiskey or the times?”
“Both really. But the times.”
“Oh, the times.”
“Harry would pitch a movie about this shit.”
We laughed lightly.
“You have to write it,” Morrie said, doing his best Harry. “Give it that old Cal Godot touch.”
Our laughter was sudden and loud and seemed to echo out of the yard and into the trees and up into the stars.
“I sure do miss him,” Morrie said. “You?”
“I miss everything,” I told him. “Everything and then some.”