Here is the dilapidated residence of Dr. Anthony Galante who retired from teaching chemistry at Nauset high school to work on his experiments to turn one thing into another, with the goal of getting rich.

He fails, year after year, to turn foil into silver, water into fuel, fabric into armor—he came close with the latter but learned a Seattle company had already invented a “tin cloth” shirt. His house has fallen down around him from neglect, the lawn alternately overgrown and barren, emerald-colored moss clogging the gutters, and grass somehow growing on the roof. He has succeeded in transforming one thing: his home into a few corridors of mildewed sticks.

I ask myself about his alchemical drive: how is it different from any of us who try to turn the sweat of our labor into dollar bills?

Galante’s ex-wife, known as the most beautiful woman to have graduated from Nauset high, left him because of his obsession. After a few drinks, someone near him at the bar will be sure to mention her, to which Galante sometimes replies, “Beautiful is as beautiful does,” which made me conclude that beautiful did not do much, particularly in the way of lovemaking. She came into The Fairway years ago, and it was true, she was beautiful, tall and thin with large eyes. She did not take a stool but remained standing even when Galante put his arm around her waist and tried to guide her to a seat. She twisted quickly away, an exotic fish that flinched when you neared the glass.

I ran into him at Fanizzi’s. He asked me within minutes if I had any interest in alchemy. Before I answered, I was interrupted by a roar from the patrons on the other side of me. They were discussing “the blue zone,” the location of people who live past one hundred. Galante immediately leaned over and joined the conversation, saying it should be possible to change age into youth. When everyone laughed, he said that opposites are closely related, like sides of a coin. He asked his bar mates if they had any interest in alchemy. After they kidded him for a while, Galante told the story of a man who tried to change coal to gold but got stumped at a certain point. Doing research on the Internet, he discovered that a wise woman, a recluse in Tibet, was said to hold the answer. He dropped everything to find her, and it took years. When he got to her remote village, and found her even more remote house, he knocked on the door. The wise woman in Tibet turned out to be the most beautiful woman in Tibet. He composed himself long enough to describe his experiment. She said she was busy, she was alone, her husband was on a trip, and she had time for only one question and no more—he would get the answer to his single question and then he must leave. Galante said he understood the man’s quest, that he himself had a single question that would mean everything to him. A barfly guessed, “When is your husband coming home?” Laughter drowned out the rest of the story, and it remains unfinished.

Galante left to have a cigarette, and I watched him on the deck as he looked over the bay at the incoming tide. I saw everything through his eyes: tobacco into ash, evening turning to night, shore into sea, ice melting to water in the Jack Daniel’s in front of me.

The barmaid, a summer hire from Croatia, spoke to me about the man in Galante’s story in a thick accent. “He didn’t want gold,” she said. “He wanted women.” I turned the conversation back to the blue zone and asked her if she would like to live to be one hundred. She said, “In your country, I would like to live to one hundred but in my country, no.”

She asked me if I would consider moving to a blue zone country, like Greece or Japan. I told her I was in a zone from which I could not depart: the gray zone, where people teach until they are one hundred.

Galante did not manage to transform his age into youth. He died a year later, flesh into dust.

John Skoyles most recent books of poems are Inside Job; and Suddenly It’s Evening: Selected Poems. A hybrid prose work, The Nut File, was published in 2017. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, among others. His new prose book, Driven, from which this piece is taken, will be published by MadHat Press in March.  He is the poetry editor of Ploughshares. 

Artwork by Dev Murphy