At the beginning of Rules for Old Men Waiting we come upon a weathered, somewhat dilapidated summer house in the woods on Cape Cod, and its sole remaining occupant, Robert MacIver, Scottish born and bred, a big man physically and morally, and in his youth a renowned rugby player. In his later years he had been a military historian of some distinction, a pioneer collector of oral accounts of soldiers from the trenches of World War I. By the time we meet him, in the first novel by Peter Pouncey (himself a retired professor of literature), MacIver knows he has an ailment that will end his days, but before that happens we see other losses overtake him. First of all, the death of his wife, Margaret, after a long, happy marriage. She had died in that house on the Cape, which had been their idyllic summer retreat for over thirty years, the place to which they had withdrawn altogether when her sickness was nearing its term. During their final months there he had deliberately chosen to ignore the upkeep of the building rather than allow her to be disturbed by invasions of repair crews, and so six months after her death, as the fall arrived, and then the snow, he faced a Massachusetts winter with a decrepit heating system and no firewood.
In the despair, dislocation, and inanition after his wife’s death he had at first gone to ground like any hurt animal, neglecting himself as well as the house, until the aimlessness of his days and consistent undernourishment set him helplessly adrift among hallucinations. Then at last he had made an effort to pull himself together and try to take charge of the remnant of his time. He was determined to face the winter, and his end, alone, with whatever dignity he could maintain, as the house he remembered with such depths of fondness went to ruin around him.
It was the cold, the onslaught of winter, that had roused him to his determination. The woodpile had been burned up back in the late spring, as he had tried to keep his wife warm through her last weeks:
He still had hot water for his shower, because that had an electric heater; but it was only a matter of time, he thought, before the ever-intrusive cold wrapped itself around some standing pipe and eventually burst it…. Lying in bed at night, often in his old navy greatcoat, he could hear the old house groaning around him…. Everything inside and everything outside frozen in its aches and pains to a tight immobility. One bold move and something would snap.
And finally did. He had been making one more effort: go out and glean something that would burn from around the exhausted woodpile or the edge of the woods. Slow and steady, no athletic moves. Except it was slow and jerky, at every step hating his own brittleness, his feeble shuffle-lurch, small, short mouse-breaths.
He had not got far, but …