The Lonesome Death of Alexander Niltab

 

I am the aforementioned Alexander Niltab, and I was born into a pre-revolution Russian family in June of 1914. I grew up in New York City, and I attended a high school that specialized in the sciences, so when I went away to a university in Baltimore, Maryland in the middle of what turned out to be the Great Depression, I focused my studies in that area, principally in chemistry and biology. It had been my hope to apply my skills to gain admission to a good medical school, so I transferred to the university’s pre-med program. Unfortunately, despite my desire to become a medical doctor and in spite of my good grades in the program, not a single medical school accepted my application, and I was left at loose ends for the first time in my life.

The university had required all male students to attend two terms in Reserve Officer’s Training College (ROTC)). Without other job prospects and cognizant that I would be entitled to enter the service as a First Lieutenant, I decided to enroll in the armed forces, and because of my background in science, I was assigned to the Chemical Corps. I found myself stationed close to my home in New York City doing mostly administrative work.

One evening as I was walking home after my day shift, I practically walked right into a girl who was an absolute vision of loveliness. Due to my preoccupation with my studies during that failed attempt to become a doctor, I hadn’t spent much time around girls other than my mother and my two sisters. In fact, it would be fair to say that I was afraid of girls, believing they possessed some special property which made them qualitatively different from us – more sensitive, and more skilled at navigating the finer aspects of life. This girl was quite vivacious, laughing over my clumsiness with her friend who was accompanying her.   I was embarrassed by the mishap and tried to stammer out an apology. She smiled, putting me at ease, and we began talking. I told her my name, what I did for a living, and where I lived. She laughed and told me she literally lived right next door, and that her name was Elissa. I observed how lucky I was and that if I wanted to speak with her again, I could just lean out my window and shout, to which she responded with peals of laughter.

I was pretty ignorant about dating, so I asked my older brother, who was married, what the protocol was for getting to know someone better. He suggested that I ask her if I could take her out for dinner, and if she answered in the affirmative, I should call for her at her house and introduce myself to her parents. Well, it all went according to plan. We dined at a neighborhood tavern, I had a Pastrami sandwich, and she ordered a salad. She could have had anything she wanted.

When we arrived back at her house, she asked if I’d like to kiss her goodnight. Well, the only thing I knew about that activity was what I’d heard on the weekly radio drama I occasionally listened to, and it sounded pretty unsanitary to me. On the other hand, she was standing right there, and it occurred to me that maybe I should broaden my horizons. “What the heck,” I thought.

That kiss was a revelation. My heart was pounding. My knees got weak. Let me slow down, I thought to myself. What was I getting myself into here? She was breathing pretty hard herself, and her face was flushed. Did this mean I’d have to marry her? What about my responsibility at my Army job? I worried.

Now that I was an old hand at it, I continued to take Lish, as I called her, out on dates on the weekends when I didn’t have to be working. We went to a variety of restaurants and occasionally to the motion pictures at the local Palladium. But mostly I looked forward to the end of our meetings when we would kiss. Lish was 6 years younger than I was, and she was not only beautiful, with delicate features and wavy chestnut hair, but she had this earthy quality that I found very stimulating, especially when we were kissing.

The next important event in my life arrived courtesy of the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This action prompted the United States to declare war on Japan. I was transferred to the Pacific theater, and the country was soon engulfed in the Second World War. With only a few days before I was to ship out, I asked Lish to marry me, and she agreed, so we tied the knot in January of 1942. I won’t go into the details of our brief honeymoon, but I’ll tell you it was a transforming experience for both of us.

We were separated for the next 4 years, as I was involved in combat in the Philippine Islands and New Guinea. By virtue of having a college degree, I headed a battalion, and Company E of the First Platoon of that Battalion presented me with an etching of me and my adjutants when I left that read “We Miss You Captain Niltab.”  And I don’t like to blow my own horn, but the War Department saw fit to award me the Bronze Star for valor. Anyway, by August of 1945, the war effort was not progressing as hoped, but two Atom Bombs later, these difficulties were satisfactorily resolved, and I was shipped home. During my time abroad, I was promoted several more times and left the hostilities as a Lieutenant Colonel. I had gone deaf in one ear from the shellings but the Army compensated me by volunteering to fund graduate school training in any field of my choosing.

I thought long and hard about this offer. I had wanted to earn an M.D. degree, but that had not been in the cards for me. As I reflected on it, though, I realized that my true interest was in using my skills to perform medical research, which more appropriately required a Doctor of Philosophy degree in biochemistry and bacteriology. Accordingly, at war’s end, I applied to and was accepted in the Ph.D. program of a university known for its outstanding faculty in these areas.

Lish and I relocated to Wisconsin to begin my new studies, and we agreed not to have children until I finished my degree. Of course, that decision didn’t prevent us from rehearsing for the blessed event, but we were always careful in how we applied our efforts. Meanwhile, we endeavored to make ends meet on my meager army salary, so we enjoyed fewer nights out on the town than we used to when I was courting her. She suggested we could go out dancing, but I wasn’t confident that I was capable of guiding her around the dance floor without stepping on her toes and embarrassing myself.

I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1945 and was trained in the techniques of applied scientific research. I remained in residence at the university until one of my professors arranged an interview for me to head a research laboratory back in my old stomping grounds of Baltimore. It meant working long distance on my dissertation, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The logistics required us to move to rural Maryland, from where I could commute to the laboratory in the new used car I had acquired.

It took a little longer than I had hoped, but in the winter of 1946, I successfully defended my dissertation on the characteristics and behavior of the Vibrio Fetus Bacterium. After I had returned to our new home with the good news, I reminded Lish that the true significance of my achievement was that we then had some unfinished business to attend to, and we proceeded to get busy. Linda Viable Niltab was born nine months later in the spring of 1947. Though pleased as punch with our newest addition to the family, we also wanted a son, so we went back to the drawing board to try again, and Paul Niltab was born nine months later, in the spring of 1948.

Both Linda and Paul were accepted as legacy children in the university where I had earned my Ph.D. While Linda completed her four-year curriculum to earn her baccalaureate degree in French literature on time, Paul dropped out of college after his first year to travel around the country, later completing his B.A. degree in Economics. After college, Paul got a job doing economic research in a government agency but found the environment somewhat bureaucratic, even though all his supervisors had Ph.D.’s. He asked me about my experience with the doctoral degree, and I explained how its purpose was to train candidates in the skills of performing research. This observation came as something of a surprise to Paul, who had been employed in something of a “faux” research capacity in the bureaucracy.

Linda began working in the government agency in charge of overseeing the country’s weather services, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and moved to Colorado, where she lived her life separate from the other members of the family. Meanwhile Paul earned his own Ph.D. from a university in New York City, and went on to become a professor at a university in the Midwest. Lish and I once travelled out there and sat in on one of his classes. I was so proud of him. It was just after that trip that I began to lose track of Paul and then everything else. I remember Lish suggested that we attend a revival of “Oklahoma!”; and I remember one song that the lead actress sang. It felt as if Lish were singing it to me. Here were the lyrics:

Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly
I will come as evening comes to woo the waiting sky
Out of my dreams and into the hush
Of falling shadows
When the mist is low
And stars are breaking through
Then out of my dreams I’ll go
Into a dream with you 1

That was the last clear memory I have. After that, I started forgetting things. At first, Lish was puzzled about it and then became angry, losing her temper with me. But at some point, she became concerned that I might really have something medically wrong. I know she took me around to see many doctors, but none of them could give us a clear idea of what the problem was. I remembered from my science journals that there was an illness called Alzheimer’s disease with many of the same symptoms, and that the medical community was just starting to analyze it scientifically. But much of the research about it at that time was only anecdotal. No one knew that it could turn you into a stranger to yourself and to everyone close to you. And since no one really understood its causes, no one knew it could kill you.

After that, everything seemed to change. I don’t know what happened to my beloved Lish, but she was no longer there in our house. Instead, an old woman with white hair, who bore a slight resemblance to Lish, had replaced her. And this person was nothing like Lish. I’d try to have a conversation with her, articulating some ideas I had developed on something, and she acted as if I had been speaking gibberish. After a while, we just didn’t say anything to each other. Hours would go by in silence until it was time for dinner, and we would both eat in silence. In addition, this person put locks on all the doors, so I could never leave the house. Then, one morning I had a meeting I had to go to, and fortunately, she had forgotten to lock the front door, enabling me to escape to my meeting. It was raining out, so I opened an umbrella and started walking to my meeting. I hadn’t gotten too far when suddenly, the old woman appeared in the car telling me she was taking me back to that prison with the locks on all the doors.

After that, everything changed again. This time, the old woman drove me back to Baltimore, but rather than delivering me to my old university or my laboratory, she had me admitted to a hospital. She spent some time talking with some doctors there and told me to go to the room I had been assigned. I had just drifted off to sleep when I woke to find a strange man standing over my bed talking to me. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. “Are you my father? I asked him. “No,” he answered, “ you’re my father. I’m your son, Paul.” Later, Paul, the old woman, and a couple of doctors took me to a restaurant near the hospital for lunch, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very hungry. I never saw Paul again, but the old woman visited me often in the hospital.

I wonder how serious this medical condition of mine is. I know, for instance, it has had a deleterious effect on my brain, and I know the brain directs all the other functions of the body. But, I mean, could I die from this problem? And that idea of my own death, of the negation of my being, I’m having trouble absorbing it. I mean, I know it’s not the negation of my existence. I had a good life. I achieved a few things in my day. I had love in my life and I had two children. But, will I be remembered? My wife was not that much younger than I am, so, even if she remembers, for how long will that be?   I hope my children remember, but neither of them had children of their own, so in one generation, my existence will have been forgotten.

I must say, I am getting sick and tired of this inability to speak coherently. As you can see, there is nothing wrong with my ability to reason through an issue. It’s frustrating that my memory is so damaged, but what are all these doctors doing to earn their salaries? And what about this old woman with white hair? Every time I turn around, she’s here, looking at me.

It’s now the end of March in 1983, exactly three months before my sixty-ninth birthday. I’m feeling more and more confused every day. I was feeling all right a few minutes ago, but now, I’m feeling really sick. I don’t know what it is, but I have this really intense headache. That woman with the white hair is looking at me in a peculiar way. It looks like she’s getting ready to say something to me. But I can’t make out what she’s saying. She’s being drowned out by some noise coming from the hallway outside my room. It’s a radio. The announcer says they are going to play a song by someone named John Prine, called “Hello in There.” I can just make out the lyrics: 2

We had an apartment in the city,
Me and Loretta liked living there
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown,
A life of their own left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha,
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean War,
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
But old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,”hello in there, hello.”

Me and Loretta don’t talk much more,
She sits and stares through the backdoor screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.
Some day I’ll go and call up Rudy,
We worked together at the factory.
But what could I say if he asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do.”

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,” hello in there, hello”.

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please just don’t pass them by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say hello in there, hello.

1 “Out of my Dreams” from Oklahoma! Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Music by Richard Rodgers. Copyright 1943 by Williamson Music.
2 “Hello in There” written by John Prine ©Warner/Chappelle Music, Inc.
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