Bedside Matters, the fifth novel by painter and writer Richard Alther, enlivens its singular setting with an unexpected journey at lifeʼs end for one man.
Walter had mastered the business world, at a cost—to discover in old age that a degenerative disease would eventually render his body useless. His mind, however, was trapped as it was and had an unconventional final act to play to everyone’s surprise, including his own.
“Youʼre just dying, Walter,” Irma, his caretaker said. “We all do.”
“Iʼm fine with dying, Irma. Iʼd just like to know when,” he replied.
But it wasnʼt true. Walter is a complicated man, captured in the gilded cage of his mansion, watching the world, his world, go by without him. As he yearns for his physical power to somehow be magically restored, Walter learns to let go and let his mind take its course. A cinematic non-linear take and frank examination of the promise of life, even at its end, Bedside Matters asks the ultimate question: What matters most?
Here’s an excerpt from Bedside Matters by Richard Alther.
Walter became an orphan, sort of, when he was 6. His mother and older sister, his only sibling, were killed in a car crash, breezing through a red light. A flask was on the seat between them, the backseat littered with bottles and beer cans, easier for her, Walter figures in retrospect, than dealing with their flat already crammed to the hilt with junk. His father supposedly worked on construction crews, but spent every night at some casino. Horses, Walter was told by his aunt who was really a foster parent; there was no regular family for him like the kids in school. But Aunt Peg had more than her share of work dealing with three foster babies—she was paid for doing this, and four druggie teenagers—apparently long before authorities kept a close tab on this stuff. The teens ignored him, so Walter, by 9 and 10, found plenty of action at odd jobs after school. Little time or interest in having fun. One thing, though, was the new-fangled television, which shut everybody up, enthralled. The rag-tag household would gather in front of the four-inch-thick plastic bubble rigged over the miniscule screen to enlarge the image to a full foot wide. They all howled with tears over deadpan Groucho Marx, outrageous Milton Berle, side-splitting Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. But it was dashing, icy-cool Steve Allen and his luscious wife, Jayne Meadows, that implanted seeds into the marrow of Walter’s grammar school bones. Thanks to the suave Steve Allens, belly laughs aside, there was laid out the serious and beckoning path from which Walter was never to waver.
It’s been over a year since Walter was told he would have another year, maybe two or three, no way of knowing. Like Parkinson’s, but not, in fact. Like MSA—Multiple Systems Atrophy—but he was not entirely following that course, either, other than the very gradual and inevitable deterioration of his nerves, muscles, organs—everything will go but his brain. There is no cure, came the simple statement. He was satisfied with the initial neurologist but Paula demanded second and third opinions. He gave it his best shot for a while, despite his total lack of interest, doing leg lifts, calf raises, arm curls to stimulate his low blood pressure, to maintain a modicum of strength. Bullied by medical types let alone his daughter, he lacked the gumption to resist. But this is not me, Walter concluded. He never exercised. He did watch what he ate. Seven almonds, he counted them out, instead of a fistful. Small portions, he is not a big man. Sip his expensive wines, knowing what they cost. Never swill! His extensive wine cellar, well, it was primarily an investment. This he relates to. After Polly, there were never any friends in his scene. Mostly, the wines accumulated, like his money.
For ages before it became official, he would drop an iron skillet. At least it missed my foot. Some aches and pains. Hell, who doesn’t have them at my age? Forgetting if he’d already seen that episode of Murder, She Wrote. Probably forgettable. More likely, I’m losing it there, too. Tripping and falling backward. Yet again. He simply did not want to be bothered, going to a doctor. And so it went for many a moon. Until now, sequestered, quiet, no decisions, no one to bug him except Irma, who in truth he empowers to be sergeant-at-arms. Fine with me, thinks Walter, nodding off in mid-afternoon, no pain, no worries, and napping guilt-free.
Hello, Walt. Will here. Walter opens his eyes. Clouds the color of ash are obscuring his bay window view. Who invited you? Okay. We were equal partners, Will and Walt, until … until you saw otherwise, Walt.
It wasn’t me. It was your drink. Your all-consuming divorce. Whatever. Let sleeping dogs … I am a sleeping dog, Will, in case you bother to notice. I was the brains of the business, Walt. You were the rock, never your hand left the wheel. Ever presiding at meetings, ready to commence 10 minutes prior. Terrorized everybody into following suit. I was the co-owner, my turn at the helm. Yes, it was your wild imagination, Will, your ideas for the products in the first place. I made it happen. We each did our thing, until … yes, Walt. We all know. I gave Sandra everything to get rid of her. I ran debts up the yin-yang. Bought myself a mansion, too, squandered whatever was left on the kids … until you were no longer functioning as an equal partner, let alone a major employee. No, Walt. That’s your face-saving scenario. I say, until you struck like a stealthy snake and instigated the series of loans, boxing me deeper into debt when the only outcome, the only logical option left for me—logical is your middle name—was for you to buy me out and … let me sail solo and hardly coast but magnify all the inherent opportunity … to capitalize on my brainpower, my God-given marketing savvy … the formula that worked, Will, and simply needed elbow room, without your bull-headed interference for the enterprise to really flourish … and make your killing, la-de-da, without so much as a dollar of restitution when you sold … you weren’t speaking to me. I offered … lip service … you were so drunk and beyond hope at this point … you never touched a drop, Walt. Never lost control. Somebody had to be. Well, my dropping dead a few years later left you free and clear. Walter leaves a pause. Fuck off, Will. You did your thing, then you threw in the towel. You grabbed the stocks. All those shifty legal shenanigans. Behind my back. You’d always begged me to handle all those boring details. It’s too late. You left me nothing. We were equal partners at the start. It was never in my power to ruin your life. Really? Equal? I came to you with multiple talents. You had one. Dead ringer for a manager. Dime a dozen. Yes, Will. You were the extraordinary salesman, dreamer, infectious personality, mechanical engineer, power player, negotiator, blessed with unbridled energy, womanizer, party boy. I was nothing but a dolt. At least give me credit for that—my latching on to an even keel.
The bed linens have been changed. The next dosage of drugs is at the ready. Who did this? Paula? Is she still here or am I making that up? The dopamine, aptly named, is not working—the latest attempt to restore coordination. They said drugs have never been effective for this, but worth a try. More chemicals at the ready. Don’t I already have enough, my bloody switchboard gone berserk. … Has Irma wanted to fix lunch but been hesitant to wake me? Irma, forever hovering, damnable much of the time.
Walter adjusts to being contained in only one room now, first floor of course, formerly the beautiful dining room with its soporific, becalming evergreen walls punctuated by handsome ivory crown moldings and chair rails. Did he pay attention to the Williamsburg-inspired layout and filigree of this impeccably crafted neocolonial as they evolved? Apparently not. The 220 acres, yes, of those he was acutely aware. He took pride, briefly, paying cash and acknowledging he was, as is said, officially lord of a manor. At this instance he is entranced by a sudden streak of sunlight igniting a shock of lilac in full bloom. However many shades of purple might there be? Violet to inky blue and back again. Is this what painters are all about? When they plunge into their palette do they have a particular, borderline bluish-violet in mind, or is it just a stroke of their genius, another of the million pokes before and after each particular one? Something he’s certainly never thought about. The sunshine hides and snaps shut this line of reflection, shifting Walter to the bedside stack of checkbooks. Now here’s some food for thought. What to make of it all. He has no debt, of course. The will and legal things are long since in order. And yet, and yet, this mountain of cash. … With Paula he damn well better remain sharp as a sword.
Walter had aced junior college working full-time in the school cafeteria, and got a full scholarship for his last two years at the state university. He recalls having to work part-time in the loud, grubby printing office—he’d never not worked, it was no big deal. He almost felt sorry for the preppies and kids from the right side of the tracks. It was as if they didn’t have a clue of what makes the world go around. As for making a killing? They were way too nice.
Irma hesitates before removing his dinner tray. She closes the curtain, readies the bed-stand pitcher with a clean glass. Amazing, Walter considers, Irma practically pirouetting about the spacious room as if she’s really happy, as if she’s doing a little dance.
“You’re an unusual woman, Irma. All you’ve ever told me is you left Hungary in your late teens and connected with relatives in Wisconsin. You must have so much history before you landed here.”
“I just work, for others. That’s enough for me. I love to cook. Knowing all you’ve been through, Walter, I feel a lucky woman. My life is simple. You’re a mess. Just tending you here and now is a full time job. Steady income, I don’t have to think about myself. I think I’ve got it easy.”
“I should reduce your pay.”
With a straight face she responds: “No longer your business. If anybody, your daughter Paula’s my boss. But frankly, it’s me who tells her what’s going on, the latest from the doctors and nurses. She’s got enough on her plate—her company, divorce, the kids. She keeps wanting to give me a raise as you decline and need more help. I’ve told her that’s not necessary. I already live here, in the lap of luxury. I’m sorry you can’t seem to enjoy it anymore.” She halts.
“I’m glad you feel that way. I know I can be miserable—like a perpetual adolescent.”
“You said it, Walter, not me.” Her arms which have been akimbo flop now to her sides. End of therapy session. “That self-assessment will keep you out of trouble for the time being, mulling that one over. Perpetual adolescent. I get a kick out of you, Walter. I never raised a kid of my own. You’re the closest thing.”
“That’s good. Because I’ll never grow up. Have run out of time for that.”
Irma bustles off. Suddenly Walter resents these niceties. What about replacing her with a manservant, humorless, perfunctory, Walter considers. One less dominatrix to deal with, given his fragile state …
Yes indeed, Walter. Your pockets are bulging today! exclaims the lovely red-headed lady cashier at the local bank—an easy, 10-minute bike ride. She is Irish, like his foster-mother Aunt Peg, but this woman has the biggest smile, at least when he is next in line. He unearths his latest treasure, two whole wads of bills. I’d have even more, he says, since Auntie Cable and Dr. Altmann and Mrs. Haas paid me extra for raking the leaves before mowing. Boy oh boy, this account of yours is really coming along! she gushes and winks, exaggerating her dimples. As she does her desk work, Walter is bursting head to toes with that amazing sensation, like pins-and-needles but as a thrill. He loves the ever-creeping-upward total amount, nesting safely in the booklet no one in his house knows anything about. The cashier hands him the booklet with another huge smile. He fits it into a front pocket of his dungarees, roomy those days, before hopping onto his bike. He furiously peddles home, even faster than the trip downtown, even though the road back home is all uphill.
Excerpted from Bedside Matters, published by Rare Bird Books. Copyright © 2021 by Richard Alther. All rights reserved. Richard Alther was born and raised in suburban New Jersey. He graduated as an English major from Cornell University and pursued twin careers as a writer and painter. He is the author of five novels and lives in Palm Springs.