by Larry Brody
This morning when the telephone rang, I heard a familiar voice over the answer machine.
It belonged to the Old Billionaire.
For the last several years, the O.B. has been a very important part of my life. We were each other’s friend, teacher, and student too, minds meshing as though together we were one.
But the last time I’d talked to my friend he was on a dementia-induced rampage, furious at me for reasons no one could understand. So instead of answering right away I stood and listened to the message he was leaving:
“Hey, Larry B, it’s me. I read what you wrote about not knowing if you were living or dead, and it hits ‘way too close to home for me not to chime in.”
When I heard this I smiled. He sounded like the man I’d known before his illness. Quickly, I snatched up the phone.
“O.B., is it really you?”
“‘Really’ me? Talk about a tough question. We can spend hours chewing on that one, don’t you think?”
“You’re back!” I said.
“Maybe,” the Old Billionaire said. “Don’t know for how long. I’ve got these new meds. They don’t do anything for my memory, but they keep me from getting so mad.
“I’ve been in a fury,” he went on, “about stuff that’s real and stuff that’s not. About not knowing which is which. About remembering my kindergarten girlfriend—Ethel, her name was, and she always wore the same polka-dotted dress—but not my sister who died…well, I don’t remember when she died.”
“I’m sorry about that, O.B.—” I stopped. Couldn’t think of what more to say.
“Not as sorry as I am,” the Old Billionaire said. “But sorry’s better than angry. At least, I think it is. Can’t recall.
“But that’s not what I wanted to say. According to this index card in my hand, I wanted to tell you how you’re onto something, wondering whether this life is real or not.
“I wonder about that too. A lot of folks lose their way now and then. Misplace their values, or their ideals. But I’m in a fog all the time. Not just about what I ate for breakfast, how to put on my sock. About everything. Especially the big stuff.
“I’m sure I stood for something in my life,” the Old Billionaire said, “but I don’t have a clue what it was. And if I’m not what I always believed in, then what am I? Who am I?”
“I don’t have an answer for that one, O.B.”
“Nobody does. But I’m working one out. Way I see it, if I’m not who I was, then it doesn’t matter whether this is life or death or heaven or hell. Because if I’m not who I was, then my soul is gone. Kaput! Not part of me anymore. And I might as well be dead.”
He stopped. I heard him take one breath. Another. The breaths were weak but even. He was steady. He began talking again.
“And if that’s the case, wouldn’t I be better off in my ‘How’re You Doing, Mr. President?’ Suit, the one I wore on all my rich person occasions? Yep, that’s it. I should be in my expensive finery right now, lying in my fancy box six feet underground.
“You’re worried about whether the place you’re in—the psychological place, the spiritual place—is heaven or hell?” he went on. “At least you know it’s you doing the worrying. For me that’d be heaven. But this not knowing, this ache I’ve got inside me that keeps crying, ‘Who are you, old man? Are you you? It’s pure and simple, boy—that’s hell.”
The Old Billionaire’s words reminded me of something. “There’s a play by Jean-Paul Sartre where he said ‘Hell is other people.’ O.B., you ever see that?”
“Can’t say. Don’t know. But I beg to differ with your writer pal. Hell’s got nothing to do with other people. Hell’s all about being alone…and not knowing the first thing about the old gomer you’re alone with.”
Now his words reminded me of something else. “O.B.,” I said, “I don’t know if this’ll mean anything to you, but everything you’re saying, everything you’re wondering–it’s what you’ve always said and wondered. It’s the real you.”
The Old Billionaire’s voice caught. He stammered. Then: “Knew I could count on you, Larry B. Have yourself a great day!” and he hung up with a whoop.
And so here I am, having a great day indeed. My best friend is back.
At least, for now.