Zachary was latchkey today, and he snaked up the puddled back drive like anybody with two wheels freed from their bus-stop chain would do, slow like it was four o’clock and he had two hours left to pack and the sun was reddening the rain-dripped leaves overhead. He was latchkey today because Tuesday. Tuesday was the day Mercedes black wouldn’t sit behind the fountain drive and the house would echo until eight or nine, because something about business trips and branch offices and he’d stopped listening.
Things were quiet, the sound of his key in the lock rattled large in the mahogany frame, and his feet fell square in slants of afternoon light that patterned the foyer floor. The sun-slants reddened, turned, climbed the far wall, and had almost lit the carved ceiling angle by the time he dragged the suitcase down, stair-rug straining and giving, skate wheels heavy and burdened, because hands grasp when heart is empty. Last tread, floor, and grunt it was upright and he tugged Louis Vuitton to the umbrella stand heavy, and waited.
It was all planned, all down on the scrap-back of the taxi man’s business card — there was the time over the bridge, and then through traffic to Departures, and so the machine would be crunch-spitting out his boarding pass at the time the man’s key rattle would sound along the entry hall here. There would be takeout, Chinese, because that was what the man thought Zachary liked, or more possibly because they’d never gotten to that part of the conversation. For a brief moment Zachary held the thought up that the takeout bag would fall to the floor and noodles would scramble on the entry rug when the man realized he was gone.
The sun died as he waited, died quietly as things die when their going is a loss of hope rather than life, and a step-stumble outside from the taxi man’s arriving reminded him that he had left the chandeliers dark. No matter, and the suitcase was in the trunk and the rain fell in lashes along the highway and Rihanna sang something about the umbrella he’d forgotten.
The bridge loomed fog-sheeted and distorted through the glass, and wind scourge-whipped its cables, tensioning, bending, releasing, pushing.
Fog was low in the harbor, like a cloud had taken on water and sunk, and the cargo freighters were swimming through it blindfolded and groping. It was not a quiet fog, it was a vicious thing, a vengeful thing, deluge-full and pounding torrents across decks, pounding, driving, until eyes were washed blind and right was where left had been and no one knew. The bridge pylons were small and she was twenty thousand tons and the captain couldn’t even see the cars hit the water.
From behind as they were, the bus dropped first. It was Greyhound and brake lights frantically pumped and the painted silver dog leaped and disappeared. A college-kid Corolla scraped madly across the edge and followed, then a minivan, plowed from behind by a 48’ Freightliner lit yellow like Las Vegas. The pavement shuddered, buckling back across the bridge span, and the stormed world lit candle-flame with red lights on all sides and came to a frozen stop.
Zachary was out of the car and running, soak-slipping on the dashed spaces between cars, and they were backing up, a line of back, jerk, back, and the drivers sat, tight-gripping steering wheels. And he was running, stumbling, frantic to reach the ragged edge, and someone shouted after him but the world was frozen tableau and he was the only one moving. And he sucked wind-slapped air, and he had to reach the edge, and he was there — the crumbled roadbed’s ripped end trailed straight down into nothing, nothing, a blanket-spread of fogged nothing that wisped at his feet.
The world around him held still as he watched, and it was a long time before he looked up and realized that only a single span’s worth of southbound had collapsed and he could see its other side, cragged and dismembered. It was empty, clear empty, and he wondered what it felt like to fall backwards that way. And the world held still for a fog-trapped minute.
Noise came through before he turned around, a shouting, screaming, and Zachary wondered if someone behind thought he was going to jump. His head came up and the twilight world settled in again — the headlights, the wind-groaning of the bridge cables, an overweight tourist on the northbound shoulder holding a kid on his shoulders too look so it wouldn’t miss a thing, and he felt sick. The shouting continued.
Windshield wipers, rows of them, glinting and thump-thump, back, thump-thump, back. Windshield wipers, and he was soaked through and shivering.
The shouting began to sort itself, unscramble into words, and he realized a figure was coming up the span he had taken; frantic splash-running, and it was his name it was screaming, and it was the man, but it didn’t make sense. Headlights flickered as the man dodged the backing cars, and wind tore the words and spit fragments across to Zachary, and he stopped listening.
And then they stood, two, above the nothing, staring at chances.
These are days when Mondays turn from light-streamed wanders through work and hot tea and lunch meetings to catastrophes, when days of straining for success become struggles for life in ragged seconds. And we are shocked, we start, we stumble, because the realization comes suddenly that this is not how it should be. None of this should happen, and these are shadow days.
But — but maybe the twisting of normal and thoughtless-usual into the grotesque, the terror-thrashed upheave of what should never be — I find myself asking if maybe this is the inverse of the transfiguration that is to come? Maybe there will be a day, beyond the glass-darkly sight we play by in this tent-home of mortality, maybe there will come some time when all which is normal and numbing to our eyes here will be revealed as filth. And maybe it will be transformed, and maybe the horror of upheaval that happens now is a shadow of what will happen then?
That is the thought that strikes, as the updates tick in and the knowing rises that lives are ripped here today. And these are shadow days.
There are things I can’t do. Quite a few things: I can’t smell, I can’t remember dreams (which might be connected to how I can’t, cannot wake up in the morning without serious help), and I can’t cry.
The thing about smelling is that I’ve never been able to. We’d mention it offhand to doctors (because I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, in and out of them, for stacks of food allergies and behavior problems and that sort of thing — I was a tragically tall mess with duck feet and a bowl haircut. Some of that has changed), we’d mention it to them and they’d look confused for a bit before offering me a bit of fresh-ground coffee to smell, and when I couldn’t, they’d put their heads on one side and tell us to have a nice day. One doctor tried smelling salts, and I snorted enough of it before I realized what’d happened that it felt like an episode of Burn Notice had gone off inside my frontal cortex.
Now they think it’s about how my nose is shaped, how the inside of it runs all tied and twisted so it doesn’t work right, and I might have to get it blasted out with lasers (I picture a Dr. Horrible-looking maniac with a laser tag gun; maybe that’s not accurate, maybe it is) or I might have to get my nose reshaped (which is oddly exhilarating, because — new nose and new sense in the same sitting) or they might just not care.
But I’ve never been able to. Aside from a few whiffs of some particularly strong fuel station when the wind was right, or maybe a roadkill skunk (I didn’t grow up a city boy, and that totally happens) or a gas leak once or twice, I have no idea what it’s like. I imagine that it’s sort of like tasting, but somehow with your nose, and I don’t understand that.
I don’t remember dreams, either. Occasionally they’ll cobweb-cling to my consciousness during the half hour or so it takes for me to struggle out of sleep (and it really does take that; it feels like swimming in cement, that’s really what it feels like, every morning), but I can never remember anything past that. I get déjà-vu a lot, though — like, extremely specific flashbacks to very precise moments where I remember dreaming something; and that doesn’t make sense, because I don’t remember dreams, but it’s been happening a lot lately. Do with that what you feel like.
Also I wrote down that I can’t cry, and I wonder if that was correct, because my heart cries so easily. It cries and falls in love and soars and plunges like a freshman in a hang glider — just this last week I fell hard for a song, and though it must’ve been three days ago, it’s still on constant repeat and the play count is probably in the hundreds. But for whatever reason, no matter how cracked the heart is, the eyes don’t cry, and that’s that.
So now I’m just realizing that this is the first time I’ve written down something like this, and maybe it’s just the weekend or the sun-strewn day this has been or the fact that I can’t mail my taxes after 4:00 because no post offices are open (I don’t know what I was expecting, honestly), but maybe this is what makes a life.
She is prettier than you, your sister. She is taller and her purse is a soft leather thing that falls from the crook of her arm, and the blue-striped top peeks out of her shopping bag and I think the boy behind the counter wanted to slip his number in there too. Her feet fall nimbly in the heeled sandals and her hair rides in huge curls over the blazer collar. She is prettier.
You run, don’t you. You’re a runner? Swap the chinos for shorts, and you have the suburban shoe-store trainers, and the tank tops, and I see the scoreboards of lap times and how your hand twists open a water bottle. I wonder if maybe she isn’t, your sister, if she isn’t a runner, and if you carry the knowing that you placed second in regionals, if you carry that tight-clutched in the tiny purse over your shoulder.
I want to tell you that the runners are the winners, that it is those who push and breathe and strain and move that are unstoppable. I want to say things about how your sister’s heels will fill with cement someday, someday as she drives your someday-neices to ballet practice, and how that doesn’t happen to people like you. And I want to tell you that those who come around you will hold you tighter, because they have to, because that is how you will hold on to them.
I want to wrap this around your neck like the bronze or silver that will shine there one day in some far-off capital city, and I want you to clutch that close.
Not sure why today. I mean, I think I saw something on the coffee shop newsstand about the European markets, and as I chased the feather-flakes back across 37th and bundled shivering into the elevator with two Americanos for us to wake up to, I thought that that must be it. I remember my father hates the English and I wonder if he’s trying to snap up the market on its way down — the recollection of last summer’s garden party on the Hampton house terrace is as stale as the photos that hit Perez the morning after, but I think Dad said something about your family’s London holdings and how they sprawled like anything. It’s been eleven years since I wondered what he was thinking.
You’re in the shower now, and the glassed plinth that hides you from the corner-penthouse sweep of Manhattan skyline is fogged with steam. I stared that skyline down for a long time after you got up, stared it until there was nothing left for me to do, and so I sat here at the steel-and-plank desk in the corner and wrote this letter.
There is something so final now, now that the call has come, and I wonder why it escaped me before — years before, eleven years before, when you were the breezy-wealthy ingénue and I was Harvard-heavy. Because the door slammed then, slammed concrete-shut, and that was the final thing; you and I would be married someday. We would marry, for money and lights and Astons on the weekends, and power-things of trading and stock valuations and chess-match oil prices and shipping companies. It was not my decision, it never was, and I want you to know that for sure, because maybe your knowing will convince me of the same. This letter is for that.
He decided, he decided, and I agreed. If I am a dog for that, then oh, I am no worse than one of Pavlov’s. He decided, I agreed, it’s what I have always done.
So perhaps it is only with the final click that you realize the closing of the door. Perhaps that, because now I know it has closed, solidly, irreversibly — and so, in a way, this is a letter in memoriam of the things that might have been, the you-and-I that might have been, if other things had been different. It’s too bad, really, because I think we might’ve become best friends.
Friends may grow apart, though, that is the way of things; and so because that could not be allowed to happen, inside the me that loves you is a shrinking of someone who would only like to know if third-grade you would’ve picked him first for kickball. I say this soft, into the paper, and you are singing Minaj in the shower.
I have to let the old me out sometimes, like the other night at The Gramercy when there was nothing I could do but escape to the men’s room and stare at him hollow in the mirror. He aches, Colly, and I ache for him, but with neglect the ache is dulling, and this letter is for that — he is dead, Colly, he must be dead because there is a sparky piece of Tiffany’s in my coat pocket and tonight we have a table at The Modern.
This letter is not for giving to you, not for letting you read. The afternoon maid’s name is Rosa and she has a daughter who will be graduating this spring and she will wonder at needing to empty the ashtray.
Tonight I want to cobble together words about coffee shops, and nothing else. Words about coffee shops, about after-work sittings in deep leather chairs, and chatting about lenses and apertures with the shop owner. I want to idle-wind strings of sentences around the seat backs and the daylight-savings-time twilight and the rustling trees outside, to sit here in the clichés and the comfort and believe that all is safety and warmth and light. But.
I was almost through with work yesterday, and the sunlight was glazing with startled orange the trees outside the east-facing window, and my thoughts had sped the twenty-five minutes down country highway and back onto city-lighted streets. But the texts of a sudden let loose and piled flood-wise in, and I stopped short because they were the tired hands holding things that should never be.
And I was silent, because words echo when they are not spoken close.
The words would be wrong anyhow, for I know nothing of this. I know nothing of little lives shortened, little lives never given space to be, little lives even littler because they never had a chance to be at all. Of this I know nothing, nothing except the choke-back of grief for them, the mommy and the daddy who will sit sidelined at graduations and watch and spectre-wonder what might have been.
And so, though I want to write about thinking and wondering, words come out about feeling and knowing again, about the trust-fall that happens when the light and the marvel that should be turns black and dark. And — and though I know nothing, I have felt that fall, and I want to speak a small thing about the working that fills silently in the blackened spaces. And so I write shaky lines.
For the working of grace is true, is reality, and we think we know its existence by what we have known in the light, not by blind-seeing it in the dark; but we forget the origin of that grace, forget how it began in the aching silence of nothing. The cry splitting loneliness and reaching far for those who had fallen deep — oh, friend, grace begins not at the high places, but in the valleys, and we know it because it is in those valleys that we once stumbled!
If grace lifts mountain-high, if it carries people and hopes on current-wind to the highest places — oh, then it must run valley-deep, it must, because that is where it began.
The night of trembled loss is where grace lives strongest, and though we grasp for it in that dark space, it does not struggle to reach us.
And so these words are cobbled, clumsy-hammered together because I do not know how to draw a firm line through lives, and I wonder even if one ever should. But the sun is set long-past, and I think of them, the mommy and daddy who hold yet-again hope fragments, and I write for them.
Everyone’s writing something apocalyptic now, he told himself, and he was right. The daily wander through the bookstore on his way back from school had confirmed that. Everyone was writing something about the end of the world, about somebody — or a group of people, like that gosh-awful paper of Leon’s last semester, yeah — about somebody left over from the whatever-huge event that had ended everything. Their books were full of debris and piled shrapnel and people running from things and hiding and all.
Well, he wasn’t going to do it, because that was escaping, and so what if writing about things ending made it more endurable that they continued. And he told himself that if and when things spiraled out of whatever rubber band thing kept them together now, then it was time up for all of them, everybody, and no one would be left. That must be how it would happen.
That was what he told himself, and so he made sure the door lock clicked and pulled the notebook from underneath the mattress. And pencil fell almost happy into the callous-dip under his knuckle, and he wrote.
The good thing was that there was no one in the store to watch. The place was empty, completely and spooky-empty, but he had gotten used to the scattered bits of the shelves and the smell of the rotting deli section. He’d been afraid of it, that first night weeks ago, because the lights were still flickering shock-shadows through the racks and display cases and checkout registers, and there were packs of dogs ravaging the freezers. The dogs traveled in packs for the first days, but he hadn’t seen any for weeks. The deli section stank anyhow.
Aisle 7 had been cosmetics, but the floor had buckled and crumbled upwards into a volcano-hole and smashed Aisle 7 into Aisles 6 and 9, so shattered cosmetics and hair product and toothpaste all poured together. Toilet paper, that was what he needed, and aspirin for the headache. He’d eaten through the name brands last week and moved on to the generics.
He had never been in a Walmart before this, that’s why he was glad nobody was there to look. They used to drive past the one on Southwood on their way to Mellie’s dance recitals, the one downtown with the druggers and the old station wagons with the massive rims, and they weren’t like that. The only time their Audi had looked remotely like it would’ve belonged was three weeks ago when he’d finally found it, a wrecked heap of corkscrewed metal and leather in a tin-can crunch of ten other cars underneath the interstate overpass. And the bodies were gone, of course, because all of them were, and he didn’t know why.
School was standing brick-solid and massive on West Elm, of course, and some of the ivy was missing from the second story, and that was it. It was the only building left on the block, and somehow that seemed only logical.
He turned up the cracked sidewalk and past the stiff-staring lion heads — lion head; the other’s had been knocked off by a falling I-beam from the decimated event complex across the street, and nothing stared out of the headless stump except a ragged piece of concrete that looked vaguely like Rock Hudson if the light was angled right. This morning the flag was gone, tatter-blown off in the rain that’d come the night before, so he just knocked on the flagpole with his knuckle as he walked by and up the steps. The doors were unlocked, because they had been then, and he tugged the mahogany open and stepped through the dust mote slants on the marble floor.
First period was French, and he recited verb conjugations to the lined-up desks and thought quietly of how the echoes in the high-transomed room meant he only had to say Pouvez-vous m’aider? once to hear it twice. Then came classic literature, and, finished with The Illiad, he paged through the syllabus for an hour undecidedly and almost made himself late for English.
And so his footfalls clattered down the empty hall toward Mrs. Edmund’s classroom, and he fumbled to get the notebook out of his backpack. Apologizing to the desks for being tardy, he shakily stood in front and began to read.
The good thing was that there was no one in the store to watch. The place was empty, completely and spooky-empty, but he had gotten used to the scattered bits of the shelves and the smell of the rotting deli section. He’d been afraid of it, that first night weeks ago, because the lights were still flickering shock-shadows through the racks and display cases and checkout registers.
2 months ago
A little song for you, filmed in a garage by a friend.
North Carolina is a tangled thing, a confusing, twisted labyrinth of roads that are trying to be more impressive than they are, trying to be bigger than they are, trying to make good on the promise they made to get you to your destination, and never quite coming through. The roads wind in curve-sweeps past farmhouses, clapboard and brick farmhouses with columns and wainscoting, veil-hidden in trees that have seen wars, bark full of memory. There are ponds and lakes, and these are tangled too, with a bramble that creeps down their banks and throws twig-nets across your view.
And I do not understand it yet, this North Carolina thing, this old house thing, this living in the midst of past that seems ever-present. I do not think it understands me, and I do not know if it wants to — a new son, a shiny iPhone-and-Starbucks type — but I want to understand it, and I want to be able to live credibly in it.
I am a mover, a chaser, and a dreamer like me cannot stop. I live in the questioning and the asking and the reaching, feet always ready to leap over greener pastures’ fence. But if living is rooted, if being alive is being present and being present is existing here, then, moving, chasing — is that living?
And so the question comes, and I have precious little answer, but I stop, and maybe the breathing of the February air is a little like staying, a bit of being. And in the taking of air perhaps is a little giving of self.
And the sentence hung there, suspended above the lake mist at the end of the dock so presently that Ryan suddenly realized he’d said it aloud. They let it hang because things were moving slowly, Saturday-morning slowly, only-two-weeks slowly, and the water against the dock sounded like heartbeats.
Something washed against the corner of the dock post, something purple, and Ryan started, rolled over and pulled it out, the tee shirt he had hung on a nail earlier. He muttered under his breath at the dripping shirt.
Marli pulled herself up from the water, up by the knotty-wet boards of the dock edge, sundress soaked through. Back hunched, she wrung her ponytail out over the edge and lay back, knotted spaghetti straps against hewn boards, and let the fog mass farther into the reeded edge across the water.
Ryan stared, stared the fog-fall, and she bumped her knuckle against the knots of his spine. “No, they’re in town early, though. Fireflies? Some girl at school is related to one of them.” She traced figure-eights around the vertebrae. “That’s why it’s not like an official concert.”
He grunted, and the humid fog pressed down again. She pulled her hand away and wondered at the break, wondered at what had happened, wondered not at the facts of it as much as the very existence of it. How the same world of concerts and fireflies and fog-water could hold it.
“Are you gonna go?” Marli rolled over onto one elbow.
“The concert? Of course,” and he took a deep breath and responded over his shoulder. “I’ll take you. Want to do dinner first? We could —”
“No,” and the cutoff was sharper than she wanted it to be, “Into the water. Come on.”
She watched as his spine reacted, a chain of stiffening that worked its way up to his neck, and saw him run a fist through tangled early-morning hair. And the fog hung low again.
When he spoke, it was pushed and hard. “I can’t.”
And she knew why, knew the tight-held words spilled closely into the river that was two-weeks fresh. That the water would feel like June, like the life-drench that had been summer and vital and full, and hitting the mud bottom would feel like crashing, like jumping and falling deep, like Chris June-full and pulling the steering wheel right anyway. And the leaping to the top, the frantic pull of breath would feel like drowning, like two weeks ago was today, and the river hadn’t lost any of the knowing of it.
And something tore ragged from Ryan, and she was holding him, and her wet hair fell on his shoulder and she couldn’t see why she had gone in, why the water felt right and normal to her, why it was only the dry ground that felt like graveside and why eyes tight-shut was the only way she could see.
And they held there, and the sun blur-crept through the reeds, and it was July.