Fiction: The Planner by Paul Jaskunas

I turned forty and decided I needed a plan.

If I didn’t have one, I’d live and live without getting ready. That’s just how I am.

So the day after my birthday, between buy plants for deck and call plumber, I wrote, plan Plan.

What did I mean? I wasn’t sure; I had the idea that to get ready, I’d need a plan—a plan for getting ready. First, I had to plan to devise this plan. Otherwise, it would never happen.

The plan was a high priority, but not an immediate concern. It rated below calling the plumber but above new hyacinths for the deck.

What actually happened, though, was that I called the plumber, bought six hyacinths, planted tomatoes and basil plants in the garden, fixed the broken door handle in the bathroom, did the shopping at the request of my wife, and took my son and daughter out for ice cream—all before I got around to even thinking, seriously, about planning the plan.

We were all pretty quiet while eating the ice cream. It was the first time we’d been to an ice cream shop after the long winter, the first warm spring day when people were out with the bikes and T-shirts. The shop was busy. We had a little table in the corner and sat there in silence, eating hungrily. My son had spilled napkins all over the table. I took several, thinking I might need to make many drafts of the plan before I got it just the way I wanted it.

On the way home in the car, with the ice cream in my stomach, making me cold, I thought that death couldn’t be so close. Not now. Not with the season just beginning.

The children slept in the back seat. When we arrived home, I picked them up without waking them and carried their warm bodies into the house and laid them on the couch. They went down with little moans. They fidgeted into comfortable sleeping positions and went on dozing with their mouths gaping and soft tummies lifting gently with breath.

I watched them with the napkins in my hand. I took out a pen and wrote on one of the napkins: PLAN. Beneath that, I wrote, “Make out a will? Appointment w/—who?” And then I wrote, “(ask Jimmy for reference)”.

A will wasn’t what I’d had in mind at all. But I didn’t think I was procrastinating. Jimmy would be helpful. Jimmy was a friend with whom I could talk about death. He was the sort of man who had well-formed opinions about almost any topic. If you asked him about US-Sino relations, he’d have an answer. Alternative rock, he’d recommend a band, with caveats. The caveats would be well-informed. (He was always giving you these annoying caveats.) He also knew people, experts. He had buddies who were car mechanics, risk analysts, geologists. I was one of his buddies.

I was his real estate lawyer. I helped him buy land and build on it. The buildings he made always appeared in documents on my desk years before they were built. They were usually made of glass. From the freeway, they looked to have been drawn onto the landscape by a computer, which they had. The trees and bushes planted around the buildings were all very green and tiny with shallow roots in freshly turned earth. I work in one of these buildings. My office window looks over a parking lot of brand new asphalt that reminds me every morning of Oreo cookies.

One nice thing about my office is its view of the freeway. When I arrive at work in the morning and look out my window, I see the cars lining up, making a chain of sparkling red lights. Inside all the cars are very small people clutching steering wheels; they’re all thinking their thoughts, convinced of their singularity, as well they should be, but look—look at them caught up in the great flow of energy from the outer ring of the city to the inner ring. See the big picture. I take it as a reminder to be humble.

Every now and then I can see an accident on the freeway. Rarely, but often enough to be worrisome, ambulances arrive and carry bodies away.

That’s another way in which freeways are humbling.

Being humble helps in my line of work. People who buy big plots of land and erect buildings on them are usually not humble but like those advising them to be. They appreciate deference. I have refined a style that convinces people I think highly of them. I do think highly of my clients. It is no easy thing, building buildings.

The day after my visit to the ice cream shop, I met Jimmy for lunch. He was looking tanned and content. He wore a blazer and a silky red shirt, the top buttons undone. He sported chunky gold rings on his fingers and gave off a musky scent.

If anyone was ready, it was Jimmy.

“So, Jimmy,” I said. “I’m drafting a plan right now—a plan to prepare for…”

“Spit it out!”

“Death!”

“Wills, advance directives, trusts and estates?”

He recommended someone he trusted. It was someone I already knew, but I pretended to be grateful for the name. I was wary of pushing the conversation further, but I made myself do it.

“I’m not ready,” I said. “I know I’m not. And I want to get ready before it’s too late.”

He was catching my drift. “Good man,” he said. “Thinking ahead. That’s what makes you a good lawyer — no dancing around the bush, get right to brass tacks. The fine print. Only here, with this, there’s no boilerplate clause. And you, you’re a man of law. A man who reads fine print for a living. You’re right to pose the question as you do.”

He frowned. I could see he didn’t appreciate my asking him what I seem to have asked. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. I’d expected Jimmy to have something to say. Also, there was this: I did not like how he’d phrased that: A man who reads fine print for a living.

“Well, thanks. Sorry. I guess it’s been on my mind. It’s private, though, isn’t it, this sort of thing?”

“I suppose it is.”

But I couldn’t help myself. “Do you have a plan?” I asked.

“You know me,” he said with a strange little smile. “I’m in it for the chase. I go for the gold. The more I have, the more I want. For me, it’s about appetite. I never want my appetite to quit. If I keep it from quitting, I’ve done my job. I’ve lived up to the creed. I’ve given my all by taking my all. That’s the way to live in this country.”

He was pleased with himself. He looked dreamy. It was clear he didn’t believe in death or failure. He planned only for success. I was moved. I had the urge to give Jimmy a kiss on the forehead to show him my admiration, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself more than I had. I let him change the topic. Soon we were talking about a new building he wanted to build. He had high hopes for it. He saw the market turning in his favor. He seemed to know the future. I wanted to borrow from the sheen of his teeth some providence I might factor into my plan. But the moment for counsel had passed.

***

After work, I went to our city library. The reference desk was occupied by a beauty. She had long blonde hair that caught and transformed the fluorescent, public library light. She belonged in a painting of Aphrodite, not behind that desk. But there she was, her body curled into that chair, her hands at the computer, her mouth in a pout. She looked at me and asked me what I needed.

“A reliable book on death,” I said.

I sat down in a chair and watched her type into the computer. She jotted something on a piece of paper and then looked up.

“Ready?”

“Always.”

This was a lie. I was already lying. Thirty seconds in her company, and I was prepared to say anything.

I followed her into the stacks. She pulled down a thick book called Actuarial Mathematics for Life Contingent Risks.

“Maybe this will help?”

It was heavy. Were it to fall on your head from a third-story window, you would die on the spot.

“Do you know what an actuarial table is?” she asked.

I suppose I did know but pretended not to.

She opened the book and pointed out a table that took up an entire page. She explained that it charted the probability of dying before your next birthday. She told me the statistics were very solid. The life insurance industry banked on them. Then she asked me how old I was, and I told her the truth minus a year.

“In that case,” she said, pointing to a number on the chart, “you have just under a one percent chance of dying this year.”

She smiled as if she’d just told a juicy joke. I replied with the laugh of one who has been pleasantly teased.

“Just under? Seems pretty high.”

“If you’re from Africa, the chances are probably higher.”

“So I’m lucky.”

“Unless you aren’t.”

I found an empty table and sat down with the book. I tried my best to make sense of the actuarial science before me, but my mind was mostly on the librarian. I hadn’t been flirted with in quite some time. I might have suggested a drink, a cup of coffee, or at least sought to carry on the conversation. But I hadn’t thought that quickly, and the moment had passed.

I struggled with the book and came to understand only the obvious: With every passing year, my chances of death would increase incrementally. Common sense, but startling all the same to see how soon the probability of death would surpass that of life.

One obvious path: fulfill urgent desires at once. Don’t wait, don’t postpone. Love now. Eros was quick and quickening. Eros could be the organizing principle, a central principle of the plan. Eros in the library–

She was helping another patron, an old man. She smiled at him just as she’d smiled at me. She was one of those women who never turn off the charm. To fall for her smile was an unforced error, a mistake to avoid. You had to practice fidelity and keep practicing. You couldn’t get lazy and let down your guard or you’d go soft all over.

Better to go home and talk with my wife about death. Did she have a plan? I didn’t think so. If she did, I’d be jealous. I’d want to steal it while she was sleeping.

But then I thought: any plan worth a dime must be idiosyncratic, specific to a singular human. It could not be executed by anyone but the one for whom it was right and essential.

Was there any difference between such a plan and fate? Character? Was there nothing to be planned after all? Would it all unfold as it must, given all the givens?

If this were the case, it would relieve me of the need to plan. But I didn’t believe in it. When I looked down at the actuarial table, I wanted a set of action items to count on.

I took from my suit pocket one of the napkins from the ice cream shop. THINGS I WANT, I wrote at the top. I sat there a long time, staring at the actuarial table. I thought of Jimmy’s collection of convertibles; I pictured his millions, his buildings, his closet full of custom suits. I imagined making love to the librarian. And then I began to dream.

When I was a child, I’d built a secret fort in a gully not far from our house. I built it all by myself, with plywood and bricks and rusty nails from the garage. I brought in a stool and would sit there and watch the squirrels and deer from a hole in the wall. I’d listen for birdcalls and take pleasure in easing and tightening my bowels. I felt at home but also excited in a way I did not feel in my real home. The cabin was big enough for only me. It was all mine, and I belonged to it. For hours, I’d study the forest from my fort, tasting solitude in my mouth.

If I had a secret fort again, would I become ready?

That part of me from which desire had once sprung, pure and cold, like an underground river, was now dry. I had plenty. I had a house with plenty of rooms, a family, money, health. All needs satisfied.

What I wanted was to want.

I slammed that evil book shut. I pushed myself up and marched past the librarian, who was still helping the old man. He was selecting a romance novel.

***

At home, my wife Marsha was washing our dog. We own a Dalmatian that barks at the wind, at shadows, at noises no one hears. Sparky, the boys call her. To give her a bath is an undertaking. You first fill a tub with water in the backyard. You ready the rags and soap. You ready the leash. Then you pull the animal with all your strength. She will bite your hand and claw at your chest and bark and gnash her teeth, but you persist and bring her to the edge of the tub; just when you are about to win, she will break free and streak through the yard in a dead panic. Marsha gave good chase. She sprayed Sparky with the hose. She ran full tilt into her corner and tackled the dog with laughter and suds in her arms. Sparky relented. She shivered in shame, dripping all over, and let my wife rub her down.

I watched it all through a window. It was something, seeing the pleasure she took in the work.

Would Death be to me what Marsha was to Sparky—full of laughter and warmth?

I didn’t think so. I assumed Death would have no personality. It would be as generous as the lights going out in a cold room. I’d need my own flashlight.

I’ve never spoken of such things with my wife. She teaches art in an elementary school. Her fingers smell of Elmer’s glue and she wears watercolor splotches on her arms. One feels impolite bringing up anything morbid in her company. For amusement, we make crafts with our children out of cereal boxes; we jog in the mornings and comment on sunrises. She has a healthy red glow and has never looked prettier than she does now.

I am generally grateful to be a man who looks forward to curling up in bed with his wife. But that night we didn’t curl up. That night I told her about the actuarial table.

“There was something serene about the numbers,” I said. “Serene and implacable. They made me cold inside. I wanted to cry for myself.”

“Good grief, you’re only forty.”

“The curve is steep,” I said. “Probability is working against us every day. It’s a fight you can’t win. I’m trying to prepare. Isn’t that sensible?”

“What would a plan do? Death undoes plans. That’s what makes it death. Your body falls apart, and so do your plans.”

“But we still have time—and imagine coming to the end and remembering something you forgot to say or left undone.”

“Imagine not caring. Imagine thinking about the clouds while you still can. You’re not to blame for anything. You didn’t choose life, it just happened to you. All there is to do is smile and be thankful and rest.”

I love that my wife thinks this way. I don’t understand how anyone can. Maybe it is a species of genius. Maybe it is foolishness. Could she have regrets at the end? I can’t imagine it.

Still: all plans diminish anxiety. That is their purpose, or among their purposes. I wish that my wife could see this and assist me, but she turned over and went to sleep.

***

Once my son manipulated my wife’s new telephone and recorded a video of my progress down the hall in our house. He showed it to me, proud to have captured his father’s image. I was walking to the linen closet with a towel draped over my arm. I looked a bit like a waiter, only I wasn’t moving quickly at all. I seemed slow-footed. I might have been sleepwalking. I didn’t like thinking of my son seeing me that way. I had the idea I ought to show more purpose and zeal for life in the presence of my children. For the next few days I zipped around the house like an ambitious errand boy. I was always in a hurry. But I was faking it. My hustle was hollow; it made me sad. So I gave it up and resumed my old ponderous pace of life and have been at it ever since.

We aren’t religious people, but my wife keeps a Bible in the house that her parents gave her when we were married. She never looks at it, having been forced to read it as a child. I am a newcomer to scripture, however, and now and then will dip into the pages for a taste of that old bombast and verse. That night I couldn’t sleep and went to the Bible again to read about Job.

Job had a plan. He was to live in virtue, as an obedient servant of the Lord. Still, ruin comes. A cosmic wager undoes his strength. Mottled with sores, he sits and laments in ashes. He is right to lament. His integrity won’t allow him to be silent. Until the Lord arrives in the whirlwind, the Lord of leviathans, of malice and might. His voice thunders down on Job’s smallness:

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,

 or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Have the gates of death been revealed to you,

 or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

 

Of course, Job is ignorant. He has not walked in the ocean or created the rains or given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven. He cannot tame the Behemoth or seam the sky with lightening. He is wretched; he repents in ashes, astonished by the majesty of the Lord. Astonishment in lieu of a plan. Awe and timidity. Look up in terror, pitiable man. Look up, mute and renewed by the wonders of creation.

Better reading than actuarial science, the Bible. My eyes tired. I closed the book and poured myself a vodka with ice. A secret habit. I drain a bottle a month to calm my nerves.

In the living room, I looked at the photographs of the children on the piano. They had very red lips and fair faces. So beautiful, I thought, for the vodka was already working; a ghostly aura of sentiment hovered around the picture frames. The silence from the upstairs bedrooms pressed against my eardrums, and soon I took my drink to the outside deck.

I stood there as if on a ship sailing the waves. In the grass below, dandelions ran rampant. Weeds were crawling all over the fence. We’d let the tomatoes wilt in the sun; starlings and worms had made short work of our peppers and squash. Entropy reigned, as usual, and there would be nothing but more entropy to come, for I hadn’t the energy to be dutiful and prosperous like Job. Which is really alright, says my wife, who works plenty hard, as do I, and we muddle in mediocrity just fine, planning for nothing much more than vacations, college, and that thing called retirement.

I thought of the napkins from the ice cream shop. I’d written nothing of substance on them yet, and two weeks had passed since my birthday.

From the stand of woods on the edge of our yard, I heard the arrival of animal life. Large life—horned and hoofed. An antlered deer stepped into the grass. A phantom, quiet as a whisper, it gazed at me with solid black eyes. We looked at each other for several seconds. I stepped slowly off the deck, advanced to the grass, paused there, and saw the deer walk a few steps toward the fence. I couldn’t quite see its shape for the shadows, but when it turned again to look, my plan unfurled like a flag in my mind. A plan for death. It was whole and perfect—a living conviction—but before I could transcribe the sensation into a single intelligible word, the understanding escaped me.

For a moment, I seemed to have known all that was worth knowing—and then I did not. I took a step closer, and the deer bolted into the woods.

***

For now, I’ve given up on the plan. I’ve given up on planning for the plan. I am working on making friends with probability.

There may be smarter ways, but my way suits, for now. A blend of vigor and recklessness, of hardship and pleasure. I avoid elevators when I can; I jog nine flights of stairs to my firm and show up for work in a sweat. I’ve stopped using turn signals. I speed on freeways. I take cold showers and suffer unduly in my gym’s steam bath. I go on fasts, too, until I feel hunger gnawing into my bones, and then binge on steak and wine. If ever I begin to feel ambivalent about a matter, I muster fake conviction for the sake of knowing my mind. I take long walks in the woods. I try not to know where I’m going. There’s a new desire to make myself feral and lost. I want the wisdom of that deer inside me. I want to be astonished again.

But I keep running out of woods. All our trees are hemmed in by roads – so many roads and houses, where the people bide the time allotted to them, and dogs keep watch, barking at passersby.

Paul Jaskunas is the author of the novel Hidden, winner of the Friends of American Writers Award for Fiction. He is also the founding editor of the art journal Full Bleed, published annually by the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he teaches literature and writing. Work of his has appeared in The Cortland ReviewThe New York TimesAmerica MagazineJMWWThe Atticus Review, and elsewhere.

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