by Peter Byrne
(Swans - July 28, 2014) Power cuts didn't usually matter. He had his own generator in the garage and an oil drum of gasoline. Usually, that is, not just now. Mostly, save the present, he also kept a spare lithium battery charged for a laptop. News demanded such precautions because it was vital, as necessary as food. More necessary. Most days he skimmed reports on planetary obesity and concluded he would be better off on only two meals a day. And what was so necessary about breakfast? One and a half intervals at table would do. But without events, which used to be called current, he was naked as a worm. And what did worms have to know about Dandong on the China side of the Korean border? They needn't be clothed in bulletins that far from now being only current advanced every minute while the uninformed slippery things only oozed around in the damp dark.
He would consult his partner. She paced the patio squeezing the last words from her phone. At least he wouldn't have to rehash his diatribe against cell phones with her. Why repeat that they couldn't give you anything like news in depth, and then have to listen to her comeback that they were better than nothing and essential in an emergency? Now he could ask, curling his lip, if this wasn't an emergency. But he didn't feel like arguing. He and his work were out of breath in the news vacuum. It was no time to defend his need against her charge that it was nothing more than megalomanic curiosity. So he waited in silence till her phone died completely and then pounced, trying to keep a tremor out of his voice. What are we going to do? Which meant what was she, the practical one, going to do about his predicament.
A newspaper was her answer. He told her she would have to do better than that. Papers were out of date before the ink was dry if they were still printed with ink. He remembered as a boy getting his hands black searching for the comic section. Anyway where did you find a newspaper these days? He had seen an item reporting that even supermarkets had given them up. She said stores had stopped handling papers for health reasons. They were pollutants and the strategy to market face masks along with them hadn't worked. You now had to get newspapers through the mail. You mean like in mailman? he asked. Mail as in snail? It was still chugging along, she said. The post girl rode an old fashioned pedal bike. So? Will we write a letter and ask for the latest edition? Late, it will be. She said the old boy at the bottom of the hill still got his copy in the morning delivery. She would go down and see if he would lend it to them. Put your coat on, he said, and went to the cupboard to get a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild 2007 for the old boy and one for himself. Chewing on the void had got to his nerves.
She was gone a long time. The old boy's doorbell didn't work without power. She finally had to go around the back of his house and pound on a window. Everyone knew he was deaf. He looked at the bottle of wine with a sparkle, registering the date. His eyesight was good. But he hemmed and hawed about letting the newspaper out of the house. He hadn't got to reading it yet. He was still on the day before yesterday's issue, which was spread out before him on the kitchen table. So it would have to be a very short-term loan. He would want it back quick to read and place in his file room in the attic.
Sitting up straighter, he said his collection went back thirty-five years. It now overflowed down the stairs and through former bedrooms. He knew it would be valuable one day, especially because the publishers talked of closing the paper down. That would be a mixed blessing, he thought. Rarity would increase value but a shutdown would deprive him of a trusted companion. The old boy expatiated on the storage problem and how he thanked his stars for having a big dry house. He had retreated into the kitchen as his collection grew but had been lucky, in a manner of speaking, when his children left and his wife died. Apart from space, there was some difficulty with newsprint dust that played the devil with his asthma. He fetched a plastic bag for the day's paper that he folded surgically, sending her off with a reminder to take care.
She hurried up the hill home and handed her partner the bag, saying to save it for the return. But he was not in a saving mood, spilled his wine in the excitement and dropped the empty bag by the door. Climbing to his office two steps at a time, he turned back the careful folds with his ham fists. He called down to her that it smelled of something, maybe of the old boy's house or of the old boy himself. She said, no, that's how newspapers smelled. Her father had had a thing about sitting in the evening and reading one while smoking his pipe. He changed his reading habits on retirement but died of esophageal cancer anyway.
Slamming the door behind him he sat down before his dead twenty-four inch screen. He read a front page story holding the paper up against it. But when he opened the paper to read the follow-up on page three there wasn't room. He would have to read the paper somewhere else. He had got rid of his writing desk years before. The big flat surface only accumulated inessentials, and he didn't need a writing desk since he didn't write any longer. That's to say that he wrote all the time but on one or another of his keyboards. He would use the edge of his computer table to sign a cheque or put his signature to a document. He didn't want to go back to the kitchen table now and get into a discussion about how to read a newspaper. Instead he got right down on his office floor.
But squatting, legs crossed, he couldn't get close enough to the paper spread on the carpet. He remembered yoga that he had given up out of impatience. Holding the double sheets up in front of him was more than awkward. It cramped his arms. Anyway hadn't he got down on the carpet to have a large flat surface? So he stretched out on his stomach, lifted himself on his elbows and got his nose in the print. He smelled the old boy again or whatever. But the carpet was thin and he was going to need a pillow under each elbow. He proceeded to try to read the morning newspaper.
Turning the pages became a problem. The sheets were huge and called for a twisting of his whole thorax. Going over, they even made a slight breeze that set carpet dust in motion. The page turning also meant he had to lift his right elbow from its supporting position on the carpet. This called for a tightening of his stomach muscles, no slight strain. He wasn't so thoughtless as not to have stuck a pencil stub in his shirt pocket before taking up his position on the floor. But how could he mark useful passages without pushing the pencil through the newsprint to the carpet? Newspapers were paper thin.
He wasn't going to jot the quotes down on scraps of paper intending, if he managed to keep them in order, to recopy them on his screen. He wasn't some monkish medieval copyist in thrall to useless labor. He remembered years and years back when he worked all day in a moldy library taking so-called notes. He would waste the next day at home putting them in some kind of sequence. He couldn't always decipher his own handwriting in those days and had been glad to scrap the backward routine.
Pillows or not, his elbows could take it. He rolled up his right shirt sleeve and inspected his aching funny bone for permanent damage. It was drafty down there on the floor. He got to his knees and gathered the pages up in one angry sweep. It wasn't as if there were a handle on them and they got ruffled, not to say crumpled, at least around the edges. The untamed pages were numbered, which was a help, but keeping them aligned top and bottom still wasn't easy.
The old boy couldn't have been so cranky as to expect the paper to come back to him in mint condition. Reading naturally took a lot out of a newspaper, just as it exhausted the reader. For God's sake he had to look twice to make sure the pages weren't yellowing already in the space of a morning. They seemed to be drying out and going brittle faster than he was reading them. He got off his knees with his jumbled armful and eyed the office sofa. He would often lie down for a spell to think something out. But he couldn't remember having read in the prone position for years, and then it was only books, boyhood adventure stories, light reading and also books light enough to hold aloft. Still, he had somehow to lessen the strain of newspaper reading.
He piled up the cushions behind his neck at one end of the sofa and stretched out on his back. Of course he knew that the newspaper would be out of control in this position. Save for his outstretched arms, though, he at least would be comfortable. Not only inconvenience but pain was inevitable where newsprint was concerned. He had only got through the fourth page when he felt that, before undertaking the turnover to the fifth, he needed a rest. He let the open pages settle on his midriff like a peaked roof and closed his eyes.
When he woke it was night and the power had come on. Anything might have been happening out there in the world. He jumped up encouraged by the ceiling light that shone like a beacon of rebirth. The crunching beneath his feet surprised him. The morning paper swirled around there like outsized autumn leaves. He thought of the old boy, but only for a moment as he scrunched the sheets together any which way. There was no key to press to get them straight or into proper order. He sat down in front of his big screen breathing a sight of relief. This was life lived to the hilt.
He must have worked a good two hours before his partner came in. She asked him if he found what he needed in the newspaper. He didn't turn his head from the screen and asked what paper was that. The one you beat up on the floor and trampled, she said. She wondered how she was ever going to get that mess back into a plastic bag. The old boy would be desolate. Oh him, said the man sitting before his screen. Why don't you give him your old iPad to cheer him up. It will disencumber his place and add ten years to his life. She should say twenty, he said, and ask the old boy how he liked the wine.
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