The narrator, Frank, an aging man with cataracts, heart murmur, and diabetes, reflects on the life he now lives with Francine, his wife. They have been together 46 years and time, he muses, "has made torments of our small differences and tolerance of our passions." They know little of one another’s daily lives; he doesn’t even know what conditions her array of pills on the breakfast table are meant to treat. Frank has taken to reading poetry.

Francine claims she has been hearing an intruder outside the window at night. She finds poems on the window sill. She is mystified and a little frightened. At her request Frank stays up all night one night to watch for the romantic intruder. Midway through that night he takes her for a walk in the frozen street. When they return to bed, aching from their respective debilities, he turns to her for the first time in recent memory, holds her, and kisses her as he used to, clinging to her fingers, "bone and tendon, fragile things," knowing he will die soon, and that life can still surprise him.


This story invites us to imagine the inner life of an old man whose body is failing, whose sphere of life is dwindling, and whose marriage has long since diminished to shared routines. Yet it is not bleak. As awareness of approaching death grows upon him, the narrator finds himself reading poetry and experiences, both with a certain wryness and with great tenderness, a reawakening of his capacity to see and love the woman he lives with. It details the various debilities of both husband and wife unflinchingly, but in a way that endows such a diminished life the dignity of endurance. Valuable reading for any course on aging.


Emperor of the Air was first published in 1988 by Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Primary Source

Emperor of the Air


Harper & Row: Perrenial

Place Published

New York


1989 (paperback)

Page Count