Paul Sampson
Wearing Out My Welcome
 
 
          The news is full of people losing their homes because of sleazy credit offers that tied them into loans they didn’t and weren’t meant to understand. I can’t help wondering if there were hidden gotchas in this borrowed-time deal I’m in.
          Think about it: When you borrow time, who owns it, what will the payments be, who can make you pay it back, and how much notice do they have to give? Fair questions, it seems to me.
          I won’t claim I didn’t sign up willingly. I had cancer, a bad kind of it, in my larynx. The alternatives were pretty clear: borrow the time, or the time is up. The down payment was steep: surgery, radiation, pain, and loss of voice. I paid without much hesitation. When I got another cancer, and another, and another (lung, lung again, skin), I took out more time loans from the surgeons and the chemotherapists.
          I don’t regret it. I just reflect that, unlike the mortgage on my house, these loans have no set term. I don’t know how much time I borrowed.
          Not that I want to know, exactly. I want to think that as long as I make the payments—take the pills, get the terrifying checkups, generally behave myself—they’ll keep extending the arrangement. Not forever, I know that, but until…well, I don’t know that part. Not soon. Not right away.
          But it’s a little like renting a house without a lease. You don’t know when they might decide to kick you out, even though your rent is paid and you haven’t had wild parties or trashed the plumbing. If they want you out, they just cut back on maintenance, let the roof keep leaking, refuse to paint the walls, store their junk in your garage—just nibble at your patience until you decide to move. And lately, it’s felt like someone is giving me that kind of hint.
          When I lay me down to sleep, my body creaks like an old house in the wind. I hear the faint complaint of splintery timbers moving dryly, one against the next, the reedy squeak of rusty nails that creep and loosen the whole structure bit by bit. This building I have lived in all my life: it’s wearing out. I can’t stay here forever. I’m wearing out my welcome in this place.
          My back, the doctor tells me: the disks are shot, arthritis, scoliosis. “No wonder it hurts,” he says, and offers pills. I’m glad to get them.
          A month ago, in Italy, I had to let the others explore Florence while I “rested.” Here’s my notebook entry: “I can’t help feeling I’m flying pretty close to the edge of the sky.” An aviator’s wisecrack; it has to do with running out of room to turn around. Or running out of fuel. Or running out of time.
          Time is running out, says the urgent advertisement. Time is running every which way, I reply. I move into the past at will, and why not? There’s more time there than in my future. I move into the ever-shrinking future while I can. I visit the adjacent times of friends.
          I just returned from a backward trip in time, to the shrines of Greece and Rome. I saw Parnassos, every artist’s sacred mountain, home of the Muses. A day before, I had walked (or rather, limped) on an Ionian island, an easy half-day’s sail from Ithaka, where Odysseus ruled as king. His biographer Homer prayed, Muse, tell me of the man of many turnings. I prayed: Muse, tell me something. Anything at all. I crippled up the slippery stones of Delphi, sacred to Apollo, and I prayed to him, the bright physician: mend my back. As usual at Delphi, I heard nothing useful. To hedge my bet, I trudged downhill to Athena’s temple. I prayed that she, the guide and guardian of lost Odysseus, would help me back uphill. She did, or something did; I’m here.
          I tried Athena one more time, and this time I meant business. Up the stones I hobbled, to the very top of the Acropolis, and all around her holiest shrine I crept, my neck in agony from looking up at what’s left of her temple frieze. (I’d seen the rest of it in London. Does that count?)
          Going down was worse than climbing up. At each uneven stone, my backbones rattled like a cup of dice, like junk tumbled in a truckbed. My patient wife, a more attentive goddess than Athena, helped me find my footing. Together we trekked downward to what was, for then, the present.
          In Rome, more time-traipsing. Just above the Coliseum, there’s a place to stand where you can see most of what you learned in Western Civ without turning your head: from the civil Senate to the savage swordsmen and the martyrs and the lions to the arches on the march of Empire to the triumph of the Church, and right on forward to the classic Roman logo on the brand-new sewer covers: SPQR in black cast iron. Time flows together, flows apart, flows on. Past is present, always will be. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
            We ride Time’s Arrow forward, looking back, around, ahead. Are we there yet? Not quite, Zeno. Half-way, once again. Enjoy the ride.
            Back where we began: my backbone, ridgepole of this house, this workplace where I spend what’s left of borrowed time. When I stretch out tonight, I’ll hear my vertebrae complain. Their creaks and clicks are ticks and tocks. I can’t see the clock. Too dark.