Posted Monday, April 7th, 2003
It was the kind of summer evening that makes all the babies howl, the hot pressure drop popping in their ears. Up and down the road, wails could be heard rising and lowering on the warm twilight air. The wind picked up, carrying the cries out over the woods and across the algae bloom of the lake, where somehow they were both amplified and changed, like the children’s game of gossip, so that to the ears of the old man on the other side, it sounded like angels singing. He had spent the day fighting prickly wild roses, honeysuckle and privet, driven his tractor over acres of dusty fields and was now stretched out, feet propped on the porch table, sipping bourbon from his favorite jelly glass. His weathered skin radiated heat from the wind and sun, his tired back aching for the unavailable footsteps of his wife, long gone. He sank into something like relaxation, but startled as he heard the angels’ voices coming at him from across the lake. He stood, creaking, ready to make his way toward bed and sleep, when the darkness of the night came down like a heavy curtain.
Waking up, he wondered where he was. Night had fallen even more deeply, darkness had settled in firmly, steadily creeping closer, stars twinkling through the heavy summer air, making him think his vision was cloudy as well as his memory. His jelly glass was on its side, lying on the bare pine floor of the porch. A dark shadow pooled out, a wasted ounce, annoying him. Hot anger boiled up in his chest. It crossed his mind that it was unreasonable, and he fought briefly at its insistence. The intensity was overwhelming, and he succumbed to it, floating on the waves crashing and breaking in his being. Heat alternated with cold, his chest flaming and his hands icy. Waves of fury slammed and broke over his head, cooling his heated face still pressed on the cool porch floor.
He remembered, thinking backwards, putting the pieces into place to make sense of how he came to be here. He picked his way carefully, from this night, through the hot day preceding it, back to last week, and slowly, into another time. He remembered.
It was on a cold night, frost on the windshield, stars filling the entire visible universe with intense brilliance against an otherwise black space, that he had urged his girlfriend into the physical act of love. They were reckless, feckless, and wild, and up in the quiet of Afton Mountain, their bodies merged with the entire universe, so the act became a spiritual coupling.
The presence of their child was unadvertised, a secret to many for months, not only after her conception on that chilly night, but even following her birth. The mother however did not forsake the infant, seeing her as the emblem of her connection to the universe. And she did not allow him to do so either, despite his gawkish teenaged obnoxiousness, set in high relief against the realization that he was now firmly in the grasp of a universe not of his own choosing, and by the backdrop of his stern Tory mother who had sex once in her life and been able to manage ever since without. Despite his protests that the infant should not travel in his car for fear of bodily fluids being forcibly expelled, despite the loneliness of living with her parents while he finished college, went to parties, got drunk, and failed to tell his parents. Despite his trip to Europe to see the great buildings and churches left standing after the War while she stayed home, taking care of the child, tuned in completely to the only universe that mattered.
When he returned, newly sophisticated and polished, burning with the flame of creativity lit abroad, he had been dismayed at her coolness, her preoccupation, and her startling lack of enthusiasm for him and his adventures. Their deep spiritual connection seemed twisted and worn, and it faded quickly, albeit for brief spurts. Before either of them realized what had happened, there was another conception, although its genesis was hardly remarkable, having taken place in an ordinary bed, on an ordinary night, and rather perfunctorily at that. He had been furious, positive that he was being ensnared in a life of smothering, stupefying, suffocating ordinariness. He had insisted that she get rid of it, a monumental task involving friends in New York City, who arranged a flight to Cuba, the only place a woman could obtain an abortion legally. They’d had no money but that seemed of little importance, so desperate was he to rid himself of ordinary life. He had forced his wife to go alone, heavily pregnant and queasy, on a plane to Cuba, where perhaps in another time she would have stayed out all night, dancing under lamps along the ocean, swaying into the tropical breezes, feeling only life, only joy. Why, he wondered, why had she gone? How had she let him bully her into that fateful trip? For his desperation marked the beginning of the long slow slide into thick anger, which grew into hate and resentment, and from which they had never recovered.
This time he stayed home caring for their baby daughter, making up bedtime stories, playing games, and being as reassuring as he knew how. The baby was not fooled completely into forgetting her mother, but she was pleasant and endearing, allowing him to believe that he was special, that he had a role to play in her life. He painted her flamingos, salmon colored wavy winged things that would forever after hover on the fringes of her memory, a fragment of something sad and intangible. He remembered, now with painful clarity, that when his wife returned, worn and tired, he had not noticed, but focused instead on obtaining work in another town, busying himself with preparations for the move, anticipating an exciting new life.
And it had been an extraordinary life, he was positive, only he now had trouble remembering why he thought so. The memories bubbling up were not the ones he was expecting, hazy impressions of scenes long forgotten but now clearly recalled in a different light. The look on his wife’s tired face when she returned from Cuba; how had he not noticed it before? He saw it clearly, how gradually they had simply unraveled, spinning out of control like a swing that a child twists into a knot and then allows to spin free. As they spun, they slung away from each other, farther and farther away, and with each spin they hurled accusations and anger like spit. By the time she finally left, he hardly noticed her absence, so worn was their connection. How had it happened? The boiling anger in his chest softened, subsiding, as waves of sorrow, understanding, and regret washed over him.
“Daddy? Daddy?” He tried to move his head to see who was speaking but could not. He felt hands on his shoulder, a slight breath against his cheek, as his daughter, leaning over him, looked in his eyes. “Can you speak?” she asked. He was aware of her cool fingers pressed against his neck, checking for a pulse. “I’m fine,” he said, “just lying here remembering things”. “I think you’ve had a stroke, Daddy; I’m going to get you some help”. He heard her footsteps walking back into the house, murmured tones in the background, another voice, a familiar one but at the same time unknown. “Mama and I are here, don’t worry, we’ll wait till help comes”. He wondered at this; how long had it been anyway, since his wife had been here? He felt her smooth warm hand holding his, the firm, familiar lines of her long fingers comforting after all this time. Funny, he remembered how he had at one time hated her strong hands, seeing them as coarse and unattractive. Now her touch felt warm, right, and nurturing, as if it conveyed the energy and hope of the entire world to him. “Thanks” he said, oddly relaxed even though he was dimly aware that his left cheek - indeed the whole left side of his face and his ear - was numb and cold.
The paramedics got him to the hospital in time for the stroke to be of limited damage. He would gradually regain the use of his left side, according to his doctors, who had impressed upon him the fact that he was lucky. “Extraordinarily lucky”, they said; because of the area in which the bleed had occurred. In fact they were not sure why he was alive, the risk was so high. But he had lived and would soon begin physical therapy. His daughter and her family gathered in his hospital room; he could hear them talking and clucking, sounding like chickens. Once, the sound would have made him anxious and irritable, as he had not been able to tune them out. In fact he had magnified the noise as he focused on how their sound filled his head like a cartoonist’s word balloon, so that nothing else could get in or out. But today the sound struck him differently, and as he lay in his lumpy hospital bed, its sheets in knotted disarray, he was pleased, happy, maybe even contented, to have his family around him.
He called his daughter over to his side. “I want to thank you for everything you did”, he said. “Your quick thinking really saved my life”. “Daddy” she began, a shadow crossing her face, but he interrupted, “I don’t know how you knew to come check up on me, but it sure was good timing”. “And how in the world did you get your mother to come all this way?” “Where is she, I need to thank her too.” His daughter laughed but the sound was harsh and uncomfortable, and she quickly cut it off, looking down at the floor. “Daddy, Dr. Weitz told us that you said Mom and I were there; we thought it was an effect of the stroke.” “What’re you talking about?” he asked, “I might have been plastered to the floor but I knew what was going on, for crying out loud!” His daughter breathed deeply; he saw tears brightening her blue eyes, threatening to spill over. “Don’t you remember? I was away that weekend, when it happened.” He struggled to digest this. The fact of it came to him slowly, sounding familiar, something he had known once, but now the knowing of it was confusing, disorienting. He pondered this and looked up. The small group was now gathered at his side, worried looks on each of their faces, like a roomful of retrievers anxiously awaiting the command to fetch. She stepped closer, touching his hand. “And, you remember, don’t you, that Mom died last Spring?”
Later, he sat again on the porch, drinking lemonade with his daughter. Dr. Weitz had strongly discouraged bourbon. Thoughts of that night were never far from his mind, occupying him totally. They talked it back and forth, wringing every last bit of possible meaning out of it. His daughter told him she’d had a similar although less dramatic sense that her mother was never far away. Occasionally, she had smelled a scent wafting through the air at odd times, odd enough to remark upon it, and to notice that she found herself thinking of her mother. Once, she was convinced, she had been aroused from a deep road daze, head nodding at 70 miles an hour, by her mother’s intervention, when a song that she had never heard before or since, played on her car radio, jolting her awake. “Oh I know you are tired”, the song warned, “but you can’t go to sleep”. She had felt absolutely protected, as if her mother’s arms had encircled the frame of the car and held her in a gigantic hug, saving her from careening off the road. But she still puzzled over the rest of the story, and prodded him about it. “What made you think I was there?”
He remembered the haunting sound of angels singing. Then, and it had been so real, the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand. It was as if the very fabric of the universe gave voice to everything that had come before him and everything that was to follow, singing its connection to everything, a connection he had long resisted, but could overlook no longer. “I’ve got something to tell you,” he said. As he spoke, the clave’ rhythms of Cuban music, the sound of joy, passion, dancing and life, swelled from the stereo; the evening wind carried the sweet smell of honeysuckle and mock orange across the porch.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Matt Buttrill [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Tuesday, April 8th, 2003 at 11:26 AM
Beautiful. What fine writing! Some sad stuff, though .