Upon Knowing I Must Soon Depart


First Person



No, not dying. Not just yet.* But already, still at home, the feeling of jet lag begins. Time seems omnipresent, yet too brief. Birthday presents are opened early. I stare at the bag from the pharmacy. Is this any time to try the antipsychotic? (Prescribed for sleep. All doctors hate Ambien, and respond to hearing the name of the drug the way bushmen respond to the scent of wild boar, unless they’re otherwise occupied by appearing on a reality show.) Required reading has been abandoned; already playing hooky by substituting reading one writer for another. I believe myself to be the only writer now reading John O’Hara instead of Peter Taylor, which says nothing about either man, much about me, and has nothing to do with the antipsychotic, as I have yet to work up the courage to ingest a pill.

Fondly, I observe the hummingbirds in the garden: “Greenie” has been feinting during its swirl upward, plotting its faux midair crash into “Blackie” (we aren’t very original in our nicknaming). They sink rapidly, like floaters in opposite eyes, then rise again, in a complex spiral. We’ve been stumped about what to call the almost equally dark hummingbird who has two white spots on its back wings, if you call them wings. This one, we merely call, “the one with white.” (Move over, Wilkie Collins.) 

My husband, crazed with trying to figure out how to use a SIM card when we arrive in Europe, has started explaining his frustration by stating his age as two years older than he is—a really unusual, yet piteous, strategy. Last night, having cocktails with friends, I thought he might leap to his death upon discovering that his conversation with the Verizon person had misled him, and he would be charged for looking at a map. He would still be cheated out of every cent he had, ruined. This, in addition to the horror of hidden radar cameras on back roads where the speed limit was never posted, followed by notices in the mail marked FINAL NOTICE, when they’re the first he’s seen of them—those bastards lurking in the bushes, recording his license-plate number, then sending a bill. “Ann does not read maps, so I’ve got my choice of trying to read the iPhone while I drive, or … ” well, he certainly knows better than to let me drive. He’s already suffered through my making him drive an automatic. 

What I will not pack: more than three kinds of vitamins; more than three changes of underwear; any book I might read just for the hell of it (yes, I’m aware there are Kindles); I will not take my favorite texting gloves (I don’t text, but that’s never what they were about, anyway); chocolate from the U.S. until I get chocolate there; more than one set of earphones, even if I am sure to lose them; my list of friends’ birthdays; my recently repaired, expensive, beautiful bracelet, because maybe they didn’t repair it right. I’ll have to wear it around the house for a year, to make sure. I will choose between baseball hats. I will reach a mature decision about this. I will pack only a tiny box of assorted junk jewelry, because it’s worth hedging my bets, though it’s not true that the stuff makes you look festive any more than lipstick does. No heels. Only one pair of Toms. The Pumas I like to think look like ribbony ballet flats with (sigh) orthotic inserts.

I have three more days to find somebody to water the plants. I will not reread the description of a panel I have to be on, called “American Way of Life.” I will not pretend that the hummingbirds mean more to me than they do and blame myself for not adding sugar water to their diet of withering bee balm, ludicrously ample trumpet vine, and quite possibly phlox, though they don’t seem to linger there, only to make a quick swash above the phlox, like planes at an air show.

Soon, like an improbably huge anesthetized hummingbird, I will be laid out (Yes! Business Class!) on a plane seat, looking smaller than I am—because isn’t that what’s always said about hummingbirds, when for a split second they’re observable, or those rare times a teeny tiny nest they’ve made is found? In some other passenger’s mind there may be a nickname for me—one I don’t want to know. 

*as Robert Penn Warren once said to my friend’s little child. “Red” Warren was, in his last days, hooked up to oxygen. The child had exclaimed, Daddy, is that man dead?

Ann Beattie’s story “Panthers” appears in our Fall 2016 issue. Read her Art of Fiction interview here.